Like the object of its title, “Lakeboat” cruises along very slowly, and much like the lakeboat laborers’ daily routine, not much happens in this film. But “Lakeboat” itself cannot be described as routine, what with a top-notch troupe of actors delivering the propulsive dialogue of David Mamet. Mamet himself doesn’t direct this adaptation of his very first play, but with the helming chores being handled by Mamet regular Joe Mantegna (in his feature directing debut), there probably wouldn’t have been much difference. Mantegna, who is also briefly seen in a throwaway role, wisely stays close to the script and simply steps back and lets the cast work their magic.
The setting is a steel freighter on the Great Lakes, and the audience surrogate is Dale Katzman (Tony Mamet), a grad student who takes a summer job on the ship. Dale’s limited stay on the freighter and running speculation on what caused the ship’s night cook Guigliani (an unbilled Andy Garcia, whose involvement is nonetheless spelled out in all the advertising) to miss the boat’s departure are the only elements in “Lakeboat” resembling a plot in any way. The piece is quite literally a character study, with Dale observing and listening in on the interactions between the bored crew of grizzled veterans, played by Charles Durning, George Wendt, Robert Forster, Denis Leary, J.J. Johnston, Peter Falk,and Jack Wallace. These guys talk mostly among themselves on subjects ranging from the hot weather to the physical strength of Steven Seagal, but every once in a while they find a moment to impart their “wisdom” to the younger fellow on board.
In the latter is how this seemingly static film generates some dramatic tension and true poignancy. Dale stands in direct constrast and opposition with the rest of the crew not only due to his youth but also his limitless options and promise in life–promise that these men never tasted. The one exception would be Joe (a spectacular Forster), Dale’s roommate; in the film’s most memorable moments, Joe lays bare the loneliness, despair over dashed dreams, and sad resignation that the others aboard would never own up to having. Mantegna’s unambitious visual scheme and the episodic nature of Mamet’s script may often make the film feel stagebound, but beautiful moments of performance such as Forster’s subtly spellbinding monologues transcend such technical limitations and make for compelling cinema.