Lakeboat: Joe Mantegna’s Version of David Mamet Play

L.A. Independent Film Festival, April 13, 2000–Lakeboat, an early play by David Mamet, makes a disappointingly rough transition to the bigscreen in the hands of neophyte film director Joe Mantegna, a vet actor closely associated with the stage and film work of the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.

Based on Mamet’s experience on a freighter on the Great Lakes while he was a graduate student in English lit, this memory tale is so fractured and so awkwardly staged that end result is an uninvolving film that’s dramatically inert and artistically shapeless. In its current state, Lakeboat has no theatrical life, but name cast, which includes such stellar performers as Robert Forster, Charles Durning, Peter Falk and Denis Leary, should facilitate showings on cable and TV, with slightly better prospects on video as a curio item.

Having appeared in numerous Mamet’s works (among them, the stage productions of Glengarry Glen Ross, and the films House of Cards and Homicide), there’s arguably no actor who understands better the spare rhythm, gritty dialogue, textual subtleties, and unique lingo created by Mamet. Mantegna also enjoys the benefits of having directed the stage production of Lakeboat in 1994 at L.A.’s Tiffany Theater. Yet, though it’s not entirely his fault, as a tyro filmmaker he shows no particular facility with bringing Mamet’s stylized dialogue on the bigscreen, nor ease with the technical properties of film.

In both play and script, Mamet utilizes effectively the paradigm of the outsider, structuring the yarn around the adventures of Dale (Tony Mamet, David’s brother), an attractive ivy-league college student who comes aboard the boat Seaway Queen on a summer internship, where he is exposed to a subculture and way of living he has never experienced or even imagined existed. The outrageous stories Dale hears–and Lakeboat is as much about the art of storytelling as it is a narrative with plot–are presented through his innocent, subjective P.O.V.

Spanning one long summer, the text is organized in terms of months, during which Dale meets and befriends half a dozen working- class men. The stimulus for the little contents there is derives from the disappearance of the boat’s cook, Guigliani, whose departure not only gets Dale a job in the kitchen, but becomes the grist for various rumors spreading across the boat, with each man relating Guigliani’s fate through his own personal fears and dreams.

First sequence, in which Pierman (Falk) begins to recount Guigliani’s adventures, which the audience get to see in stylized black-and white recreations, is particularly weak for it never allows any dramatic momentum to build. Lethargic pacing and excessive cutting between life on the boat and the fantasy sequences, which are the only addition to the stage play, prevent the viewers from any possible emotional involvement with the characters. The reenactments, which in a typical Mamet manner switch in tone from the simple to the more sinister and lurid, are supposed to open up the play and add juice to the proceedings, but in actuality they do the opposite function.

Most of the episodes are based on the interaction between two characters (usually Dale and another man), with the requisite entrances, exists and punctuation lines, hence betraying the work’s theatrical origins. The characters talk in rude fragments and charged broken phrases that lend themselves much better for the stage than screen. Here and there the film comes to life through the simultaneously comic and touching, foul-mouthed monologues of a bunch of men who debate the pleasures of alcohol and the alluring danger of women, whom they treat as no more sex objects.

Behind their macho bravagado, the men reveal a more fragile and sensitive side, enabling the audience to see glimpses of vulnerability and alienation as they try to make peace with their lonely, bitter and wasted lives. Forster has a particularly touching monologue in which he recounts how he always wanted to be a dancer, realizing the profession’s gay connotation, and how he was on the verge of suicide one lonesome night.

What’s notable about Lakeboat, but not shocking by today’s standards due to society’s changing mores and familiarity with Mamet’s subsequent work, is that it points to the evolution and maturation of Mamet as a writer. Replete with four-letter words, whose repetitious use soon becomes tedious, narrative deals with sexism, homophobia, trust and male camaraderie, all issues explored in Mamet’s later and better works.

Unlike films directed by thesps such as Sean Penn and John Turturro, Lakeboat doesn’t suffer from self-indulgent acting. Under Mantegna’s guidance, the acting is uniformly decent and restrained, though most of the performers (including those who recreate their stage roles) suffer from the theatrical limitations of the material and Mantegna’s lack of experience as a filmmaker. This is most evident in the film’s production values, including lensing by Paul Sarossy, whose work here doesn’t begin to approximate his level of accomplishment in Atom Egoyan’s (and other) movies.


Skippy……..Charles Durning
Pierman…………Peter Falk
Joe…………Robert Forster
Stan………….J.J. Johnson
Fireman………..Denis Leary
Fred………….Jack Wallace
Collins……….George Wendt
Dale……………Tony Mamet
Prostitute…Roberta Angelica
Cuthman……….Saul Rubinek