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Charles Durning...............Skippy
Peter Falk....................The Pierman
Denis Leary...................The Fireman
Robert Forster................Joe Pitko
J.J. Johnston.................Stan
Tony Mamet....................Dale Katzman
Jack Wallace..................Fred
George Wendt..................First Mate Collins
Andy Garcia...................Guigliani
Roberta Angelica..............Prostitute
Diane Fabian..................Janice, age 50
Lori Gordon...................Janice, age 18
Steven Grayhm.................Fred, age 18
Jason Jazrawy.................Joe Litko, age 20
Patrick Patterson.............Janice's Husband

Directed by: Joe Mantegna

Written by: David Mamet

Rated R for strong language and some sexual content

Running Time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

A swath of self-absorption is inherited by many stories told on the big screen. The most important moments of a movie character's life generally happen within the running time of said movie. Anything that takes place off screen is considered superfluous. Of course there's nothing wrong with that, but I am consistently fascinated with the way writer David Mamet utilizes the above notion in reverse. He creates unique personalities whose most memorable moments happen before the story being told, and who subsequently pass along their knowledge, experiences, hopes, fears, and prejudices to other characters during the course of the film. While most commonly known for his rich vernacular vocabulary that gleefully makes up his characters' dialogue, he also tells stories that occupy a higher level of profundity than most other movies.

Based on his stage play of the same name, "Lakeboat" is a textbook example of the above. The movie doesn't contain a familiar narrative arc, but plays more like a loosely-structured series of disquisitions; some humorous, some serious; some that are of relative consequence, many others that are trite; some that are lightweight and innocent, and others that brood over the past.

The basic story involves a young graduate student whose summer is spent working on the Seaway Queen, a Lake Michigan freight boat. The student is named Dale Kurtzman and is portrayed by Mamet's younger brother, Tony. While on board, he meets the boat's brawny, loud-talking workers, all of whom offer unsolicited advice to the fresh-faced newcomer as well as engage in various bouts of contention involving everything from women to their work to their favorite booze to who is tougher: Clint Eastwood or Steven Seagal (and Shirley Temple's name somehow gets tossed into that mix.)

The ship's crew is headed by the fastidious Skippy (Charles Durning) and his steadfast assistant, First Mate Collins (George Wendt). Below deck lives the ship's fireman (Denis Leary), who collects porn magazines and possesses a conspiracy theory for just about anything. Also on board are Stan (J.J. Johnson), the kind of patterer whose vocal decibel level fluctuates freely from loud to louder to stentorian, and Fred (Jack Wallace), whose avuncular advice somewhat offsets his inherent lack of a politically correct mentality. (When Dale first introduces himself to Fred, he is greeted with: "Jewish, huh? Hey, there's nothing wrong with that," as though the student incorporated an apology into his introduction.)

However, the most fascinating character is the intelligent, well-read, sensitive yet inarticulate Joe, played by Robert Forster in a marvelously understated performance - delicately haunting, touching, and subtle. Joe is a soft-spoken, worn man who as a teenager was probably the kind of high school outsider we were all aware of at some point ... the strange kid who never showed his emotions, was most assuredly brilliant and was probably a passionate gatherer of insight. He's a decent man who still loves to read and gain info, but houses an unusual habit of saying the most outlandish things while endeavoring to make sense. At one point, he and First Mate Collins speculate on the time it would take to be rescued if the boat were to sink. "The water wouldn't be as bad as the boredom. The boredom would kill you, I think," Joe observes, following it up with: "You know, I knew a guy who ate a whole chair just because no one stopped him."

It is the steadily developing friendship between Joe and the wide-eyed Dale Kurtzman that gains the most strength, and will ultimately house the most potent lesson. Joe's inability to express himself is bred from a childlike innocence he was somehow never able to shake, yet it is that very social naivete that unwittingly reaches out to the bright young student and facilitates a bond where life's teachings can be exchanged.

The movie was helmed by actor-turned-director Joe Mantegna, who sees the honesty embedded in David Mamet's dialogue, and understands that it embodies a life of its own. A less-knowledgeable director might have tried to hammer home the "point". Mantegna is smarter than that, as he realizes that lessons are welcomed by those who learn them, and not the product of preachment.

One of my favorite scenes has Dale diligently cleaning the kitchen as Skippy enters. "You want to know a trick for getting that stain out?" he offers, then proceeds to show the kid a better way of wiping down the oven. "You remember I taught you that, okay?" The word selection there is perfect. "You remember I taught you that." It emphasizes the humanistic need for affirmation. "Lakeboat"'s best sentiment is its understanding that one's value as a human being isn't something to be earned ... it's something to be realized.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney

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