The ultimate plain-talker, Jimmy Hoffa was never known as an author of fine ironies. But one real beauty clings to him eighteen years after his disappearance: He remains a hero to a lot of the people he stole from.
Director Danny DeVito, screenwriter David Mamet, and leading man Jack Nicholson think quite a bit of him, too. In Hoffa, they define the powerful Teamsters boss in conventional Hollywood terms: He's a man of the people, two-fisted rebel and tireless idealist. The other things Jimmy Hoffa was -- convicted embezzler, jury tamperer, Mafia stooge -- are ignored, dismissed with a shrug or casually romanticized. Heroes regularly score better at the box office than villains, and these moviemakers are content to see Hoffa as the guy who "built the union with a pair of balls and a billy club" and soft-pedal the guy who looted the Teamsters pension fund, sold out to mobsters, and gave unionism a bad name. Even the studio's ad slogan -- "He did what he had to" -- casts him as the Rocky Balboa of Labor. He was also the Heinrich Himmler.
As long as you take it as sheer fiction, this is a reasonably entertaining biography -- all two-and-a-half hours of it. From the first moment Nicholson screws his features into the same tight-lipped glower he wore as the wiseguy in Prizzi's Honor, we are reminded that this is one of our most gifted actors: The title role here allows him to wheedle, rave, and brood to his heart's content (and ours), to empty his whole repertoire of effects onto the screen. When Nicholson's hard-nosed Hoffa annihilates Kevin Anderson's wimpy, easily flustered version of Bobby Kennedy in a Senate crime hearing, Jack-junkies will find themselves in Heaven.
Nicholson has help from a pretty fair supporting cast. Director DeVito (how short is he, anyway?) doubles as fictional Bobby Ciaro, a composite of all the loyal union lackeys who ever revolved in Hoffa's orbit, and Armand Assante brings some dark comic menace to Carol D'Allesandro, a composite of all the tough Mafia dons Hoffa had dealings with. J.T. Walsh, Nicholson's second-in-command in A Few Good Men, pops up again here as Frank Fitzsimmons, the golf-loving Teamster who oversaw Hoffa's presidency when he went to jail in the late Sixties. As Hoffa's wife, Jo, Natalija Noulich either wound up on the cutting room floor or never really existed: We meet her in three or four brief, nearly speechless flashes.
In technical and narrative terms, the film is less successful. For one thing, DeVito, who's previously directed two intimate comedies, Throw Momma From the Train and The War of the Roses, mismanages the epic style here: His teeming riot scenes and busy courtroom setpieces clunk along self-consciously; when he packs his hero off to jail on a swell of violins, you want him to come off it. Meanwhile, playwright Mamet's elliptical, if not baffling, screenwriting style flashes back and forth across the decades with so little regard for continuity, character development, or historical event that you wonder throughout if this is still America in the Twentieth Century. Mamet first throws the fiery young Hoffa at us, full-grown, about 1931, when he's hitching rides with Detroit truckdrivers, proselytizing for what was then a struggling young organization. We get no view of his childhood and scant sense of his motivations, and for the next 40 years he hardly changes at all.
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As usual, Mamet's dialogue is sharp and true-to-life, even if some of his eat-your-broccoli lessons in Labor history and his insistence on Hoffa's pragmatic heroism are not: As Mamet would have it, the only reason Jimmy hijacked trucks was to advance the cause of the working man, and all he ever did with the stolen pension-fund money was put it in a savings account. Yes, and Albert Anastasia was kind to little children.
Hoffa had his good points, but all this whitewash is a little hard to swallow. The Teamsters are still damaged by his influence and remain under the watchful eye of a federal administrator; union members everywhere have to live him down. Meanwhile, one tabloid mythology has it that he's buried in the end zone at the Meadowlands, a region largely untrammeled by this year's Giants and Jets. Mamet and DeVito don't go that far, but their speculation about his unsolved 1975 disappearance, which serves as the film's dramatic parenthesis, is one of its most interesting fictional elements. The rest reads a little too much like the Gospel of St. James.
Directed by Danny DeVito; screenplay by David Mamet; with Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Armand Assante, and J.T. Walsh.