Hoffa (1992)

*. Near the beginning of Hoffa there’s a scene where a “young” Jimmy Hoffa (Jack Nicholson, his character not looking any younger than he does forty years later) is organizing a strike at a produce distribution center. It was a moment that really gave me the feeling of stepping back in time. Not to 1935 but to the 1970s, when American unions were still seen as being great engines of social justice. Remember Norma Rae (1979)? But then came the Reagan Revolution and the firing of the air traffic controllers, followed by a long decline.
*. When David Thomson says of Hoffa that it’s “like a movie from the seventies” I don’t think he was referring to this, but rather to its being a fairly conventional epic biopic. In many ways I actually find it quite inventive, with director and co-star Danny DeVito adding a lot of style points with his imaginative transitions, long Steadicam takes, diopter shots, and fearless use of studio sets (get a load of that forest they go hunting in!). That said, I wish DeVito hadn’t introduced himself into the movie, or at least this much.

*. I understand having a character like Bobby Ciaro as a surrogate for the audience. But Bobby ends up being more a surrogate for DeVito in being someone who idolizes Hoffa. On the commentary track DeVito admits that Hoffa was “no saint,” but as we see him in this movie he’s awfully close. My eyes widened when I heard Gene Siskel compliment DeVito for “not romanticizing Hoffa too much.” Not too much? How could he have romanticized him any more? This is the sort of movie Bobby would have made (Ciaro, not Kennedy).
*. This isn’t because I have anything against Jimmy Hoffa. I do think he was dirty, but that came with the territory. The thing is though, I don’t think he was simply the heroic man of the people and friend of the working man he’s presented as here. I like Nicholson’s performance as much as the next guy, but the character is one-dimensional.
*. As Roger Ebert noted in his review, “It comes as a shock, about halfway through Hoffa, to discover that the Teamsters leader has a wife and daughter. They turn up during a crowd scene. But this film about Jimmy Hoffa has no time to show him meeting his wife, courting her, marrying her, setting up housekeeping, or fathering a child. That is almost as it should be. Hoffa shows a man who lives, breathes, wakes, sleeps and dies for the union.” Note that qualification: “almost as it should be.” I don’t believe in this Hoffa, and even if I did I don’t think I’d find him very interesting, but that’s all we’ve got here to work with.
*. The reason why it leaves out so much, since this is 140 minutes of biopic, is that we’re stuck seeing things from Bobby’s perspective. Hoffa’s story begins when he climbs into Bobby’s cab, and at the end they share the same fate. Bobby isn’t that interesting either, being basically Hoffa’s dog, but he’s a really big part of the movie.
*. Another problem with the Bobby character is that I believe he’s wholly fictional. This makes us wonder how faithful DeVito wanted to be to the historical record in the first place. I think for the most part he did try for accuracy, but his instincts as a storyteller and filmmaker led him in different directions.

*. Chief among these is the ending, which gives us the murder of Hoffa (and Bobby) in the parking lot of a roadhouse diner. This is, from what we know, not how it went down. Hoffa was apparently lured away and (presumably) killed somewhere else. Not only that, but the killing itself struck me as conspicuous and far-fetched in the extreme. I don’t think Frank Sheeran killed Hoffa either, but the presentation of the same events in Scorsese’s The Irishman was at least realistic.
*. Well produced. Good performances, or should I say casting? Everyone around Nicholson seems made to fit. Armand Assante as the mafia guy looks and sounds very much like a Hollywood mafia guy (that is to say, someone far more glamorous than any of Scorsese’s hoods). John C. Reilly as the weasel Petey looks and sounds very much like a Hollywood weasel. And DeVito as a flunky . . . you get the picture.
*. Screenplay by David Mamet, so you know it has good flow. Mamet is good with people talking. So even at this running time it all moves quite well and I can’t think of any part of it that dragged. At the same time, I didn’t think any part of it caught fire either. It’s a good movie, of the kind that we don’t see much anymore, and likely never will again. Even at the time it was a bit of a throwback.

12 thoughts on “Hoffa (1992)

      1. Alex Good Post author

        His career has always been erratic. Next up was Batman Returns! But then he had Get Shorty. He’s a really weird talent.

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    Found this hard going at the time, for the reasons you describe. Hoffa is an important character historically, but creating a fictional route to discuss his story creates a wall to us getting involved. And much as I like Mamet’s writing, he can’t overcome fundemental flaws of conception here.

    Reply
  2. Over-The-Shoulder

    Love a bit of Danny DeVito, but, at the end of the day, you’re watching this film because of Hoffa, and if he’s a one dimensional, uninteresting character, then there doesn’t seem much point at all.

    Reply

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