HOFFA (Danny DeVito, 1992)

Hoffa, about Universal Brotherhood of Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa, is as cluelessly and strenuously misdirected by Danny DeVito as it is cleverly written by David Mamet. Some commentators were upset that the film gave so little attention to unionism; but that misses the point. Mamet deliberately stripped Hoffa of every sort of context—not just unionism but also upbringing, marriage, parenthood, etc.—to home in on a portrait of American megalomania. Was Mamet so uninterested in his own subject as not to investigate the full complex of events and experiences that help explain Hoffa’s motivation? I don’t think so. Rather, I think that he portrays Hoffa according to that complex but not inside it; it is our job to restore Hoffa to this context on the basis of our knowledge of him, and once we do, I believe, we will discover that Mamet’s view of Hoffa holds. But Mamet wants to make sure that we don’t “explain away” Hoffa’s megalomania. Moreover, he doesn’t want us to play the Hollywood biography game, where viewers of a film accept as entertainment some fatuous rendering of a particular life that could double for almost anyone else’s life. What he gives us is the unmistakable upshot of whatever it is that life put Hoffa through.
     Or to put all this in another context: Jack Nicholson gives an unnerving performance of someone whose brutal, bullheaded behavior creates its own context. When he is told, “Violence begets violence,” Mamet/Nicholson’s Hoffa responds with quick expedience and evasiveness, “I’ve heard that.” Mamet/Nicholson’s approach works because Hoffa’s self-image as a man of action is necessary for Hoffa to keep himself (in his own eyes) morally afloat.
     All this sounds fairly interesting. Why then is the Citizen Kane-ishly time-zigzagging Hoffa such a terrible film? Like George Clooney, the director of and supporting player in the despicable Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) about Edward R. Murrow, DeVito hogs the screen in a featured role. The director plays Bobby Ciaro, a fictional acolyte who serves as a reference point for our observation of his obstreperous boss. Having put all his own money into the financially doomed project, DeVito more or less ceded the central spot to himself. His inadvertent exposure of his own megalomania, though, is far more welcome than his boorish use of the camera, especially in swooping, ostentatious long takes whose only purpose is to conjure “cinematic effect.” DeVito was hilariously megalomaniacal, pointedly playing a miniature tyrant, in the television series Taxi; but he should have discovered humility behind the camera.
     Ciaro isn’t the Bobby who draws our interest in Hoffa. We watch again as Robert Francis Kennedy relentlessly pursues his idiotic vendetta against Jimmy Hoffa. Why did Hoffa slight the Kennedy family, drawing this outsized reaction from the most humorless of the Kennedys? (Please, I loved Kennedy; I worked for his presidential candidacy—don’t go anywhere on the basis of some concocted prejudice of mine against him.) Hoffa disdained an American family that practiced amnesia about itself following bootlegger Joseph P.’s attainment of “respectability” in the American sociopolitical landscape despite mob connections—Hoffa’s own accounted for his first run-in with the law—and (for crying out loud!) an adulterous affair with a first-rank movie star. (Only in America.) The Great American Showdown between Hoffa and Kennedy, as it intermittently played out, lost all fun from the fact that the latter scrapper had and used the power to have the former scrapper sent to prison.
     I am grateful that Mamet didn’t use the made-for-television-movie ploy of having Hoffa’s 1975 disappearance be inconclusive. (Well, we don’t know for sure, so how can we say?) This film risks a likely inaccurate explanation. As it should.


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