AT THE beginning of Hoffa Bobby Ciaro (Danny DeVito, who also directs) gets out of the car in which he and Jimmy Hoffa have been waiting. He gives an exaggerated stiff shrug which is about as subtle as anything in the film. The shrug isn't for Hoffa's benefit, but for ours. And it says 'I'm Italian and I'm not as young as I was'.
If Al Pacino had been preparing for this moment of screen time, he would have spent weeks in retirement homes researching the shrugging patterns of elderly Italians, and it must be admitted that this approach isn't always cost-efficient. But if there must be a choice between obsessiveness and coasting, as for established American screen actors it seems there must, then too much preparation is better than too litte.
Which brings us to Jack Nicholson who plays Hoffa. Nicholson's great performances have all been in I-just-don't-care-roles (Chinatown being the shining exception), but with the passing of time, it has begun to seem that he really doesn't care about his acting. Every year there seem to be fewer layers and more leers. He relies increasingly on brute abrasive charisma, on the charm of his charmlessness. Perhaps his last entirely successful role was as the Devil in The Witches of Eastwick, where the character's couldn't-care-less attitude - laziness and power on a transcendent scale - was plausibly bigger than the actor's.
Nicholson's Hoffa is a decent cameo performance that can't sustain a film of epic length (140 minutes). But even if Nicholson was in the mood to stretch his talents, it's hard to see what he could do, caught as he is in a strange crossfire between screenwriter and director. David Mamet has written a sour script in which Hoffa, from the first time we see him as a labour organiser in the 1930s, gets results by a mixture of sloganeering, thuggery and nasty deals with organised crime. Danny DeVito doesn't seem to notice that he is directing what amounts to an indictment rather than a celebration. He keeps trying to instal Hoffa as a piece of heroic statuary, but Mamet has provided holes in the ground instead of pedestals.
The screenplay is admittedly not major Mamet, lacking the verbal inventiveness that often underlies his obscenity. It can sometimes seem as if authenticity in dialogue, as far as this script is concerned, is directly proportional to the incidence of the word 'cocksucker'. But Mamet does provide some neat bits of construction.
DeVito's character Bobby (a fictional creation) treasures a business card of Hoffa's given to him on their first meeting, on the back of which Hoffa had scrawled give this man whatever he needs. The card keeps on popping up in the film. But there is another piece of paper that is less welcome in its reappearance: a hunting licence on the back of which a crime boss had written details of some highly unorthodox loans. It was this piece of paper more than anything that sent Hoffa to jail.
The screenplay flashes back from the last day of Hoffa's life, and provides a lurid solution to his mysterious disappearance. But DeVito turns down the opportunity this would give him to paint a tragic portrait of a power broker who realises too late that power has moved away from him. Hoffa and Bobby Ciaro may be working overtime in the memory department, but they are also perversely unaware of the dark forces massing against them. But then DeVito as director can't give Hoffa a tragic awareness greater than his own.
It isn't even that Hoffa, according to DeVito, was a bad man who did some good, almost despite himself. Nothing so sophisticated. Because he made the Teamsters the most powerful union in America, perhaps the world, he must have been a good man, and all evidence to the contrary is irrelevant - as if the dollars 11 billion value of the Teamster pension fund today was the only possible bottom line.
The handiwork of a director hell-bent on hagiography often borders on the comic. We're supposed not to notice that Hoffa cheerfully torches a dry cleaners' that resists his arguments, because a friend of his gets burned in the ensuing fire. When Hoffa and Robert Kennedy (Kevin Anderson) face off in the course of a congressional hearing, we're supposed to prefer Hoffa's sustained belligerence to Kennedy's flustered delivery and uncertain composure.
DeVito seems to think that elaborate camera work, particularly in the divisions between scenes, will distract the viewer from the unflattering portrait that is emerging despite all his efforts. The camera is always craning up or down in its search for an angle that will not make Hoffa not look like a bully. The oddest scene is a pitched battle between strikers and hired goons, in the middle of which DeVito tries to stage a little moral melodrama. Before the fight, Hoffa has talked to a woman with a young son, but she has resisted his rhetorical blandishments. Then in the course of the disturbance, mother and child are separated. We wait patiently for Hoffa to reunite the pair, to save either or both from violence, and thus to show that he has a softer side. It doesn't happen.
Then at the funeral home where the bodies of the dead strikers are laid out, the camera spots the boy alone. DeVito insists with the camera work that Hoffa is worried about the boy's mother, even going into slow motion as she reappears with a plate of food. Of course, she could still have been widowed in the affray but Hoffa asks no questions. The scene is only there to sell an idea of his caringness.
Hoffa's home life is treated by the film with a respect that makes it seem almost presidential. His wife Jo (Natalija Nogulich) appears largely on ceremonial occasions, and hardly speaks. The Hoffa home is only shown when the hero is about to leave it on his way to jail, perhaps in the hope that we will be so affected by the contrast with a prison cell that we won't register its inappropriateness for a servant of the working man.
Throughout this long film, Danny DeVito seeks to manipulate the viewer's sympathies for his hero but he needs to face the truth about his material if he is going to have any success playing spin doctor. Hoffa, with its jaundiced script and a director wedded to his rose-tinted spectacles, is a mess, with only the sterling truculence of Nicholson's performance to mitigate it.
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