David Mamet's first stage play finally comes to the screen, retaining its snappy repartee but succumbing to the narrative claustrophobia of the average theatrical adaptation. The author's younger brother, Tony Mamet, plays the pivotal role of Dale, a graduate student in English who takes a summer job working as the night cook on a steel freighter out of Chicago. As the vessel sails around and around the Great Lakes, Dale listens to the tall tales and impassioned rants of his older shipmates, a bunch of blowhards who, it's explained, "say 'fuck' in direct proportion to how bored they are."
As a youth, writer Mamet undertook a similar jaunt and got just such an earful. The film's cast (including Charles Durning, George Wendt, Peter Falk, Robert Forster and Denis Leary) tears into his salty dialogue with relish. J.J. Johnston is particularly funny as Stan, a whiny-voiced seaman who is always one nanosecond away from his next tirade. One of his best: a hysterical harangue against Steven Seagal.
"Lakeboat" was produced and directed by actor Joe Mantegna, who resorts to well-worn clichés. (Need to differentiate a fantasy sequence from the story proper? Shoot it in black and white!) His lack of imagination contributes to the film's overall listlessness, and it doesn't help that Tony Mamet (who looks far older than Dale's stated 24 years) brings little flair to his already slight character. The film is meant to document Dale's personal odyssey, the accumulation of experience that causes the ship's initially unimpressed crew to warm to him. Forster in particular acts the proverbial life out of a scene in which his character, Joe, bestows his blessings on the younger man. But, as far as we can see, Dale is merely a sounding board for his far more interesting comrades. With a cipher at the wheel, the film amounts to a slow, mostly enjoyable voyage that nonetheless goes nowhere.