Hoffa

1992, Movie, R, 140 mins

Review

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Despite Jack Nicholson's galvanizing portrayal, HOFFA is a cold, remote, neo-religious pageant featuring the controversial, belligerent labor leader as the working man's deity--a dangerous demagogue in a gray suit.

The story is told as an extended flashback while aging Hoffa flunky Bobby Ciaro (Danny DeVito) and recently pardoned Teamster leader James R. Hoffa (Nicholson) cool their heels at a run-down truckers' diner, awaiting the arrival of underworld figure Carol D'Allesandro (Armand Assante). The two plan to cut a deal with D'Allesandro to wrest control of the Teamsters' Union away from Hoffa's own chosen successor, Frank Fitzsimmons (J.T. Walsh). Hoffa's life is recalled and recreated from the viewpoint of the fictitious Ciaro: Hoffa sneaking from truck to truck in the wee hours of the morning to recruit truckers into the union; his shady dealings with the mob; a bitter strike organized by Hoffa that results in a riot and multiple deaths; Hoffa squaring off against Robert Kennedy (Kevin Anderson) in public hearings; Hoffa's incarceration and subsequent pardon by President Richard M. Nixon. While Ciaro waits inside the diner, he befriends a young trucker (Frank Whaley) who is apparently awed by him. To give the boy a kick, he permits him to deliver coffee to Hoffa, who's waiting outside the diner in his Lincoln Continental. But the kid turns out to be a plant and guns down both Hoffa and Ciaro. The two are dumped into the back of the Lincoln and the car is driven into the back of a truck that then disappears into the sunset.

HOFFA unravels through the skewed, glorifying gaze of Bobby Ciaro, casting the film in a sycophantic haze that no amount of David Mamet profanities or Jack Nicholson pyrotechnics can surmount. The film visualizes Hoffa in episodic tableaux that convey nothing about the labor leader's motivations, his emotions, his desires or his private life. According to the filmmakers, Hoffa is a walking myth playing out his destiny in front of newsmen, television cameras and Senate committees. While Bobby Ciaro should have been presented as a small, supportive Everyman--much like Karl Malden's Omar Bradley in PATTON--more screen time is spent on DeVito than his character warrants, further frustrating audience interest in Hoffa and propelling the labor leader into an untouchable historical realm.

This glacial attitude toward Hoffa carries over into DeVito's direction. Carried away by the possibilities of Panavision, DeVito creates perfectly composed images that, though frequently overflowing with human bustle, are far too studied. When a strikers' march turns into a brawl, DeVito removes himself from the scene, craning up into the sky, looking down on the heated confrontation like a giant sitting on his haunches observing the ants. De Vito's chilliness makes HOFFA into a posed museum piece, his scholarly cinematic technique so icy that he makes Stanley Kubrick look like Frank Borzage.

Nicholson's potentially great performance is sadly wasted here. The actor relies on James Cagney's earlier take on Huey Long in A LION IN THE STREETS, bringing a throat-cutting passion to Hoffa's fiery oratory and an attack dog's ferocity to his bitter feud with Robert Kennedy. But DeVito gives Nicholson a closer relationship with microphones than with any human characters, and his performance becomes correspondingly strident. An early, telling scene occurs as Hoffa and Ciaro ride to a strike site. Nicholson's trademark glint is replaced by a glassy stare as he waxes philosophical to Ciaro about the Teamsters' Union, saying that "the fucking local is a ship upon the sea."

In HOFFA, a storm is raging, the ship is sinking and all that remains above water is Nicholson's dead eyes.(Violence, excessive profanity, nudity.) leave a comment

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