Directed By: Danny DeVito
Written By: David Mamet
Produced By: Caldecot Chubb, Danny DeVito, Edward R. Pressman
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Armand Assante, John C. Reilly
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 140 minutes
Review Date: January 21, 2011
At its most basic level, a biopic, Hoffa is your typical patchwork assembly of flashbacks told over the course of forty years as the titular character, portrayed by Jack Nicholson, navigates his way from the loading docks of warehouses as an organizer for the Teamsters Local 299, to the presidency of the entire union itself. The narrative that ties the plot together takes place in the parking lot of a secluded, rural diner in 1975 where Hoffa spends the last hours of his life. This seemingly banal sequence, grounding us in the present, and presented in real-time, I found to be the most intriguing. The film purports an explanation as to the cause of his mysterious disappearance, which, if you’re familiar with the story, you know is coming at the very end.
I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say I was pleased with how that event was handled. The narrative, with the deliberate pace of a Sergio Leone western, slowly builds up an expectation over the two-hour-twenty running time, and in my case, that expectation was not only met but exceeded. While straying a bit from the history books, it’s a slick, powerful ending with shocking brevity and an emotional resonance that neatly ties up the themes of the film and recalls the best of Coppola.
Hoffa is less the story of a man, and more the story of an entire American working class that became swept up in his influence, enchanted by his power. That group is personified in Danny DeVito’s character, Bobby Ciaro, a common trucker who becomes Hoffa’s personal aide and closest friend through the years.
As Hoffa waits in a hot car in the parking lot, and Ciaro makes some calls inside the diner, we jump around through time, skipping through the chapters of Hoffa’s life not with dainty steps but with giant leaps, omitting decades at a time. The transitions between scenes are sometimes jarring, sometimes seamless, but always creative. The film seems to take a page or two from Citizen Kane in its presentation. Uninitiated viewers will struggle to keep up, but the history is less important than the raw impression you draw of the man, colored by Ciaro’s memories. Viewers who know one or two things about the mythology surrounding Hoffa’s disappearance are invited to look for clues in these flashbacks, and meanwhile, in the present, we advance unerringly toward his presupposed fate.
Nicholson turns in a captivating performance, in part aided by an Oscar-nominated makeup job and a superb script by dialogue wizard David Mamet, capturing Hoffa’s raw charisma.
The film moves right along, not stopping for stragglers. Mamet’s script skips a lot of exposition, and assumes you know quite a bit already about the history surrounding the man. If you don’t, a quick Wikipedia run will be enough, although the film has less emphasis on the history lesson aspect and focuses more on the universal story to be told, which I found to be an interesting study of charisma, influence, and the power to affect millions. Say what you will about Jimmy Hoffa, but that power can’t be denied.
As Ciaro, DeVito is as serious as he’s ever been, showing a side of himself we’ve rarely seen. We see him relegated to the role of lackey, and in most cases, bodyguard. From an early point in the film in which he accosts Hoffa with a knife, right up to the very end, he’s associated with weapons. The message is obvious: he will defend Hoffa to his last dying breath. That is the extent of his reverence for the man: unconditional. A recurring story that he tells about how he joined up with the Teamsters slowly warps over time, picking up a certain dramatic punch through the years like a rolling stone gathering moss. This story serves as a sort of metaphor for the romanticism surrounding Jimmy Hoffa, a testament to the man’s charisma rubbing off on Ciaro, and a reminder to us of how Ciaro colors his memories.
In constructing the scenes, Mamet and DeVito do a commendable job of glorifying Hoffa’s rise through the eyes of his followers, capturing the energy of being caught up in something larger than oneself. I found myself quite swept up with the story, this rousing ballad of the working man. That story wisely focuses less on the man himself, and more on Ciaro’s perceptions of the man throughout history. We’re never offered more than a fleeting glimpse of Hoffa’s personal life, and for good reason.
We experience Hoffa mostly by his sheer presence amongst the people close to him, and to those who regard him as an icon. His influence, the way he affects the atmosphere of a room, what happens when his name is dropped — these are the aspects the story explores. This is the lens through which DeVito chooses to show us Hoffa. It’s not a biographical resume of important exploits or turning points in the man’s career, it’s a reflection of the response he garners from the people around him — an effect which is only enhanced by the passage of time, as his name carries more and more weight.
Aside from a few technical faux pas, DeVito shows remarkable maturity and competence as a director — although we know his career since is marked by such debacles as Death to Smoochy and Duplex. All the same, I quickly found myself judging this film by the same standard I would expect from a Scorsese picture. It certainly has the same feel. The only quality it lacks, in this regard, is that darkly satirical spin, that biting sense of humor Scorsese has. Hoffa is certainly an intriguing, compelling character study, but it’s not a “fun” movie. I can’t imagine it has much replay value. But it is definitely worth checking out.
Josh Medcalf is a freelance writer living in Chicago.