“Lakeboat,” an early play by David Mamet, makes a disappointingly rough transition to the bigscreen in the hands of neophyte film director Joe Mantegna, a vet actor closely associated with the stage and film work of the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. Based on Mamet’s experiences working on a freighter on the Great Lakes while he was a grad student in English lit, this memory tale is so fractured and so awkwardly staged that end result is an uninvolving film that’s dramatically inert and artistically shapeless. In its current state, “Lakeboat” has no theatrical life, but name cast, which includes such stellar performers as Robert Forster, Charles Durning, Peter Falk and Denis Leary, should facilitate showings on cable and TV, with slightly better prospects on video as a curio item.
Mantegna has appeared in numerous Mamet works (among them, the stage productions of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” and the films “House of Cards” and “Homicide”), and there’s arguably no actor who understands better the spare rhythm, gritty dialogue, textual subtleties and unique lingo created by the scribe. Mantegna also enjoys the benefits of having directed the stage production of “Lakeboat” in 1994 at L.A.’s Tiffany Theater. And though it’s not entirely his fault, as a tyro filmmaker he shows no particular facility with Mamet’s stylized dialogue, nor an ease with the technical aspects of film.
In both play and script, Mamet utilizes effectively the paradigm of the outsider, structuring the yarn around the adventures of Dale (Tony Mamet, David’s brother), an attractive Ivy League college student who comes aboard the Seaway Queen on a summer internship during which he is exposed to a subculture and way of living he has never experienced or even imagined existed. The outrageous stories Dale hears — and “Lakeboat” is as much about the art of storytelling as it is a narrative with plot — are presented through his innocent, subjective p.o.v.
Spanning one long summer, the text is organized in terms of months, during which Dale meets and befriends a half-dozen working-class men. The stimulus for what little plot there is stems from the disappearance of the boat’s cook, Guigliani, whose departure gets Dale a job in the kitchen and becomes the grist for various rumors spreading across the boat, with each man relating Guigliani’s fate through his own personal fears and dreams.
First sequence, in which Pierman (Falk) begins to recount Guigliani’s adventures, which the audience sees in stylized black-and-white re-creations, is particularly weak, for it never allows any dramatic momentum to build. Lethargic pacing and excessive cutting between life on the boat and the fantasy sequences, which are the only addition to the stage play, prevent any possible emotional involvement with the characters. The re-enactments, which in a typical Mamet manner switch in tone from the simple to the more sinister and lurid, are supposed to open up the play and add juice to the proceedings but in actuality do the opposite.
Most of the episodes are based on the interaction between two characters (usually Dale and another man), with the requisite entrances, exits and punctuation lines, which betray the work’s theatrical origins; the characters talk in rude fragments and charged broken phrases that lend themselves much better to the stage than screen. Here and there the film comes to life through the simultaneously comic and touching, foul-mouthed monologues of a bunch of men who debate the pleasures of alcohol and the alluring danger of women, whom they treat as no more than sex objects.
Indeed, behind their macho braggadocio the men reveal a more fragile and sensitive side, enabling the audience to see glimpses of vulnerability and alienation as they try to make peace with their lonely, bitter and wasted lives. Forster has a particularly touching monologue in which he recounts how he always wanted to be a dancer, realizing the profession’s gay connotation, and how he was on the verge of suicide one lonesome night.
What’s most notable about “Lakeboat” is the manner in which it reflects the evolution and maturation of Mamet as a writer. Replete with four-letter words, whose repetitive use soon becomes tedious, narrative deals with sexism, homophobia, trust and male camaraderie, all issues explored in Mamet’s later and better works.
Unlike films directed by thesps such as Sean Penn and John Turturro, “Lakeboat” doesn’t suffer from self-indulgent acting. Under Mantegna’s guidance, the performances are uniformly decent and restrained, though most of the performers (including those who re-create their stage roles) suffer from the theatrical limitations of the material and the director’s lack of experience as a filmmaker.
This is most evident in the film’s production values, including lensing by Paul Sarossy, whose work here doesn’t begin to approximate his level of accomplishment in Atom Egoyan’s (and other) movies.