Lake inferior

How David Mamet spent his summer vacation

Lakeboat disproves the adage that still waters run deep. A film treatment of one of David Mamet's first plays, Lakeboat provides virtually no plot or friction but merely the aimless, profane conversations of a roughneck crew on a steel freighter. Though the movie means to offer insight into how working-class men define themselves, it barely breaks the surface of its own potential.

The playwright's younger brother Tony Mamet plays Dale Katzman, an Ivy League graduate student taking a summer job on the Seaway Queen, a freighter working the Great Lakes. The newest, lowest face on the totem pole, Dale pays close but wary attention to all the old hands on deck, led by the pugnacious "Skippy" (Charles Durning) and the fastidious First Mate Mr. Collins (George Wendt).

Dale gets his ear bent by the officers and the rest of the crew, including a seasoned pier man (Peter Falk), swaggering Stan (J.J. Johnston), avuncular Fred (Jack Wallace) and mild-mannered Joe (Robert Forster). Responsibilities are minimal — Denis Leary's only duty is to monitor two gauges for four hours at a stretch — so uncensored conversation is the ship's primary pastime. As Fred says of his fellows, "They say 'fuck' in direct proportion to how bored they are."

Hearing colorful character actors chew on Mamet's trademark tough talk always has its charms, and Lakeboat's ensemble shoots the breeze about Steven Seagal movies, German side arms, women and alcohol: "It's a man's thing, drinking. It's a curse and an elevation," Stan declares. Dialogue ranges from amusing non sequiturs — "I knew a guy who ate a chair just because nobody stopped him" — to inarticulate arguments like, "I'll tell you something." "I'll tell you something!"

Stan's time aboard spans from June to September, and he's gradually accepted as one of the crew, but no real conflict ever breaks the surface. There's no exciting technical crisis to bring the men together. The most suspenseful scene consists of Durning climbing a ladder. Nor are there any shipboard hijinks a la Mr. Roberts, although the film musters a few visual jokes, like tough Stan sunbathing with zinc and cucumber slices on his face.

Lakeboat represents the directorial debut of Joe Mantegna, a seasoned speaker of the playwright's patois. Though Mantegna gets relaxed, comfortable work from his cast, the decision to visually open up the material all but destroys it. Lakeboat could play like blue-collar Beckett on stage, with the intimacy of live theater lending substance to the conversations and monologues.

But on film, the characters are drenched in sunlight and dwarfed by long shots of the enormous ship itself, with only a few scenes in the Seaway Queen's greasy mechanical innards conveying a serious mood. The film also visually dramatizes some of the men's fanciful dreams or reminiscences about sex, showing us scenes more effectively left to our imaginations.

Lakeboat does have a unifying device through the mysterious Guigliani (an unbilled Andy Garcia), a crewman who mysteriously missed the boat and becomes the subject of increasingly fanciful gossip. Different guys imagine, in black-and-white fantasies, Guigliani being mugged, beaten by mobsters and arrested, until he becomes a nearly mythic figure.

Robert Forster's performance gives Lakeboat its only real ballast. Having worked on ships for 33 years, he asks young Dale about his future in one scene. "You have got it made," Joe says with wistful dignity, as if the younger man represents all he's failed to accomplish in his own life. Later he talks about moments of ambition as a child and terrible despair as an adult, making Joe out to be almost a figure of quiet tragedy. (It's hard to assess Tony Mamet's acting ability, as he's required to do little but listen and react.)

Mostly Lakeboat has value in dramatizing a formative experience in the life of the writer of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross. You can imagine his real-life stint on the lakes introducing him to the rhythms and postures of masculine conversation, with the ship itself providing an implacable symbol of capitalism. But despite moments of fitful comedy and Forster's moving performance, Lakeboat is dead in the water.??