Lakeboat is a film adaptation of one of David Mamet's earliest plays. It's set on one of the title vessels, the broad, flat-bottomed freighters that traverse the Great Lakes, and the characters are the tough-talking crewmen. But it's not a sailing adventure. It's the opposite of a sailing adventure.
There's no real plot, just a string of dialogue exercises and set-piece speeches. There is, however, a unifying theme: male horseshit, and especially that unfettered brand of male horseshit that arises in a contained environment of boredom and sexual frustration. As the ship chugs along, the small, all-male, mostly middle-aged crew sits around, swapping obscene stories, sociopathic philosophies and rhapsodies on alcohol, arguing about the relative merits of action-movie stars, and speculating in increasingly romantic terms about the fate of an absent fellow crewman.
Taking all of this in is the new night cook (the missing man's replacement), a nice quiet college kid named Dale, played pleasantly enough by David's (much) younger brother, Tony Mamet. Presumably Dale will one day grow up to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and marry Lindsay Crouse and Rebecca Pidgeon, but the men on the boat don't know this. To them, he's just a good listener, which makes him irresistible -- they talk and talk and talk to him, and he just nods along, respectful and probably a little intimidated by the conviction with which they express their testosterone-driven views. "The main thing about the boats," one man tells him, "other than their primary importance in the steel industry, is that you don't get any pussy. . . . This is why everyone says 'fuck' all the time." That pretty much sums up Lakeboat.
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Except for some minor trimming, embellishing, shuffling and updating -- Steven Seagal is now the center of the action-star debate, for instance -- the screenplay, by David Mamet, is pretty faithful to his old play. The talk remains in his familiar, mannered style, with its repetitions, its off-kilter stresses, its portentous intonation of commonplaces as if they were metaphysical profundities. "THE WAY TO GET LAID IS TO TREAT THEM LIKE SHIT," pronounces one of the lakemen, like he's reading the words from stone tablets.
Now and then director Joe Mantegna, making his feature debut, cuts away to a flashback or fantasy sequence showing us whatever skewed story is being told. Or he'll give us a bird's-eye, travelogue view of the boat, while the orchestral score by yet another Mamet brother, jazz pianist Bob, swells and soars, perhaps ironically, beneath.
But these techniques, though welcome enough, are just window dressing. After a while, the realization settles in that nothing very important is going to happen -- if anything important happened, it would wreck the theme. The only liveliness comes from the fast, confident riffing of the actors, and Mantegna has assembled a dream team -- the great Charles Durning as the short-fused Skippy, George Wendt as the mild-mannered, slightly officious mate, Peter Falk as the garrulous but noncommittal pierman, Denis Leary as the squirrelly fireman. Mamet veterans Jack Wallace and J.J. Johnston play members of the crew, the former bedeviled by sexual starvation and gambling, the latter by alcohol. Even Andy Garcia turns up, in cutaways, as the absent man.
In the midst of this character ensemble, Mantegna also allows one star turn, by that appallingly undervalued actor Robert Forster, as the quietly despairing sailor Joe Litko, who looks at young Dale and sees his own life as squandered. Forster is the reason that even non-Mamet-heads might consider giving Lakeboat a shot. It's worth it just to see him in his long, one-take exchange with Johnston, about booze, but he's remarkable throughout. His slow, groggy-with-sadness delivery and his heavy-lidded eyes suggest a soul beyond envy and posing, serene with defeat. Yet he isn't a drag; there's a humming actor's energy under the character's torpor. It's a masterly performance, funny and heartbreaking, and the film would seem like a Mamet parody without it.