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[whitespace] 'Lakeboat'
The shipping news: George Wendt (left) and Robert Forster take a cruise in 'Lakeboat.'

Superior Film

What do you do with drunken sailors? Make a movie about them.

By Richard von Busack

THE YOUNG David Mamet based his play Lakeboat on his brother's stint one summer working a steel boat that made the run from Chicago through the Soo Locks into Duluth. Hazards abound in this kind of freshwater boating--remember the Edmund Fitzgerald? Mamet's story, however, is a kind of pleasure cruise. The sailors on this 640-foot boat are never far from land and rescue by helicopter; looking at the waters, one character quips, "You'd probably die of boredom first." The duties are light, and there's plenty of time for yakking, drinking and featherbedding. Says one old-timer to a young sailor on his first trip: "You're a good worker. I don't mean that disparagingly."

The film, directed by actor Joe Mantegna, occasionally settles into the easily parodied ping-pong rhythms of Mamet's dialogue, as in a passage of guff between two men about the different kinds of booze waiting for a sailor onshore. These moments are as artificial as a plaster wreath. We hear the word "wine" in all its forms, rolled around in stage stew-bum rapture--it's like watching a perch of Chicago parrots. (Bird? Bird. Pretty bird? Pretty bird, yeah, pretty bird. Want a cracker? Do I want a cracker? You're asking me, do I want a fucking cracker?).

Two devices hold these anecdotes together. One is a series of tales about a tough-guy boatman, Guigliani (Andy Garcia), who seems to have been stomped near death. Was it the Mafia or the police? We guess that what these sailors are describing as a wolf-man is only going to turn out to be a shaggy dog. The other connecting device involves the impressions of a sensitive grad student, Dale Katzman (Tony Mamet), who watches the crew as he works in the galley. The kid is a little too green even for green.

Yet Lakeboat is the lightest and most lovable movie Mamet's been involved in since Things Change. Whenever the stylized, parroty Mamet style comes out, it's overcome by the shrewd observation of how men alone talk to hear themselves talk, how they bluff and (in solitude and no little pain, and under the influence of grog) how they finally really do tell a little about themselves.

Robert Forster is at his best ever as Joe Pitko, a lifer who knows he'll always be a sailor, though he harbors secret ambitions to be something more. Fred (Jack Wallace) is the laziest crewman, a harmless guy with a horrid idea of women, a tendency that Mantegna softens for evil comedy. Charles Durning is touching as the cross Skipper, who feels that the best days of his life were in the Navy, and Peter Falk, thankfully looking much healthier than he did in Made, adds a few raspy comments as a pierman. Mantegna has blended harsh dialogue with unspoken camaraderie. The film, as it drifts across the inland sea, reminds you of the short-time jobs you take and quit, and the friends you meet and leave behind.

Lakeboat (R; 98 min.), directed by Joe Mantegna, written by David Mamet, photographed by Paul Sarossy and starring Charles Durning, Andy Garcia and Robert Forster, opens Friday at the Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the December 6-12, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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