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Mamet steers his crew on a revealing course

Friday, July 27, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

David Mamet started his career by writing a drama about men on the move whose lives are going nowhere.

"Lakeboat," which was his first play, gets a second life in a film adaptation now at the Harris Theater. It stars Mamet's brother, Tony, and an extended family of actors steeped in the playwright's vernacular and guided by director Joe Mantegna, also a Mamet veteran.


RATING: R, for strong language and some sexual content.

STARRING: Charles Durning, George Wendt, Robert Forster, Tony Mamet.

DIRECTOR: Joe Mantegna.

Critic's call: 3 stars.


The title vessel, a Great Lakes freighter, steams from Chicago to Duluth and back again. The crew on this unremarkable voyage seems nearly superfluous. Asked to explain what he does, the ship's fireman, played by Denis Leary, explains that he watches two gauges. He doesn't even do a good job of that, not with all of his porn magazines within view.

The other men also have sex on their minds, because they're not about to find it anywhere else on a boat in the middle of Lake Michigan. But that's not all they talk about. Predictably, they swear like sailors -- or Mamet characters.

They argue incessantly about movie tough guys and getting drunk and everything else that is, like their lives, of utterly no importance.

But while "Lakeboat" doesn't have the comic sweep and narrative set pieces of a "Mister Roberts," its journey between tedium and apathy proves rewarding in its own quiet way. Mamet, who worked on a lakeboat one summer, scrapes away at the crusty layers of the crewmen until he uncovers their dashed hopes, secret dreams and despairing souls.

Tony Mamet plays Dale Katzman, the fictionalized version of his brother and the catalyst of the piece. Toting a guitar and a certain youthful naivete, he is largely unprepared for the men he is about to meet. The captain, a tubby man known to all as Skippy (Charles Durning), curses with a vehemence that could make the devil salute. His first mate, Mr. Collins (George Wendt), is equally broad of beam and perhaps even less patient.

Stan (J.J. Johnston) is the know-it-all who will pick a fight over lint just to give you the brush. Fred (Jack Wallace), on the other hand, is almost too friendly, particularly when he confides his ignorant expertise and laughably callow experiences regarding women and sex. All of them, including the fireman, share their own increasingly conspiratorial views about what happened to the former night chef (Andy Garcia), the man whose job Dale has filled.

But Dale forms a real camaraderie with Joe Pitko (Robert Forster), a quiet man with extraordinarily sad eyes who ultimately feels comfortable enough with the younger man to tell him things he could never tell the others in a monologue that cuts to the very heart.

The entire cast is shipshape, but Forster is so good that you wonder how he could have just disappeared for nearly 30 years -- from his strong performance in "Medium Cool" in 1969 to his justly acclaimed reemergence in "Jackie Brown" in 1997. Some of what he felt during that lost era must have bubbled to the surface in Joe's monologue.

By film's end, we have developed a kind of affection for all of the men (and have learned that Skippy's bark is worse than his bite). And we realize the origins of David Mamet's penchant for dialogue that repeats back onto itself, larded with expletives, saying volumes while it seems to say nothing.

This trip may not be really necessary, but it is certainly worthwhile.

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