'Lakeboat' floats along on current of Mamet's dialogue

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So. So? Two older guys sit on the deck of a freighter, eyes looking toward the water. One says to the other, apropos of nothing, "I know a guy who ate a chair ... just because nobody stopped him." This effectively kills all conversation, as it well might. The speaker's face remains impassive.

What would David Mamet do, if nobody stopped him? He'd write a screenplay like this one (based on his play of the same title), essentially a celebration of Mametspeak — that back-and-forth staccato jazz of dialogue. "Lakeboat" is a loose, breezy tale of an Ivy League grad student (played by Tony Mamet, the writer's young brother) who spends a summer working as a cook on a Great Lakes steel freighter and listening to the yarns of its grizzled crew. As drama, it's not much; as a meditation on language and storytelling, it's a treat.

Joe Mantegna, in his feature directing debut (he's a veteran of three Mamet-directed movies and numerous Mamet plays — in other words, he can talk the talk), has gathered a fine assortment of raspy-voiced character actors. Of these, the biggest surprise is Robert Forster, who seems born to deliver Mametspeak. His character, the profanely wistful Joe, strikes up an unlikely friendship with young Dale. "You're OK," says Forster to him, like a blessing.

Late in the film, Forster delivers a heartbreaking monologue about his desire, as a young man, to be a ballet dancer. "A dancer doesn't even have to be somebody, because he is somebody," says Joe quietly, and we see the regret in his droopy eyes. The scene is elevated by a fantasy "Swan Lake" flashback — funny, sad and gorgeous at the same time. Who knew Mamet and ballet could mix?

Charles Durning and George Wendt have many scenes together as the ship's captain and first mate; two stoop-shouldered, beefy men, proud but weary of the freighter life. Peter Falk, telling stories with singsong pleasure, flits in and out of the film, and J.J. Johnston, as the ever-talking Fred, poses a crucial question: Could Jerry Lewis beat up Steven Seagal?

Such is the talk of these shipbound men, laced with profanity, casual misogyny and regret. And imagination: The men speculate, often quite creatively, on the fate of night cook Guigliani, who failed to show up for the ship's departure. Mantegna directs these fantasy scenes, as the men spin tales of what might have happened to Guigliani, in moody black and white, with effective use of the unbilled Andy Garcia's dark eyes.

Dale, played in an unruffled, quiet way by Tony Mamet, mostly spends his time listening. As will the audience, to the music of Mamet's dialogue, with minor variations on a tune. "I drank wine," says a character. "Ah, wine," replies another. "Red and white, I've drunk it." Play it again, David.

Moira Macdonald: mmacdonald@seattletimes.com


With Charles Durning, Peter Falk, Robert Forster, Denis Leary, Tony Mamet, J. J. Johnston. Directed by Joe Mantegna, from a screenplay by David Mamet, based on Mamet's play. 98 minutes. Rated R for strong language and some sexual content. Grand Illusion.