The 1992 film, Hoffa, opens in 1975, with two men sitting in the backseat of a station wagon. One of the men is the controversial labor leader, Jimmy Hoffa (Jack Nicholson). The other is his longtime best friend and second-in-command, Bobby Ciaro (Danny DeVito). The two men are parked outside of a roadside diner. They’re waiting for someone who is late. Jimmy complains about being treated with such disrespect and comments that this would have never happened earlier. Jimmy asks Bobby if he has his gun. Bobby reveals that he does. Jimmy asks him if he’s sure that there’s a loaded gun in the diner, as well. Bobby goes to check.
Jimmy Hoffa, of course, was a real person. (Al Pacino just received an Oscar nomination for playing him in The Irishman.) He was a trucker who became a labor leader and who was eventually elected president of the Teamsters Union. He was a prominent opponent of the Kennedys and that infamous footage of him being interrogated by Bobby Kennedy at a Senate hearing seems to sneak its way into almost every documentary ever made about organized crime in the 50s. Hoffa was linked to the Mafia and was eventually sent to prison. He was freed by the Nixon administration, under the condition that he not have anything to do with Teamster business. When he disappeared in 1975, he was 62 years old and it was rumored that he was planning on trying to take over his old union. Everyone from the mob to the CIA has been accused of having had Hoffa killed.
Bobby Ciaro, however, was not a real person. Apparently, he was a composite character who was created by Hoffa’s screenwriter, David Mamet, as a way for the audience to get to know the enigmatic Jimmy Hoffa. Bobby is presented as being Hoffa’s best friend and, for the most part, we experience Jimmy Hoffa through his eyes. We get to know Jimmy as Bobby gets to know him but we still never really feel as if we know the film’s version of Jimmy Hoffa. He yells a lot and he tells Bobby Kennedy (a snarling Kevin Anderson) to go to Hell and he talks a lot about how everything he’s doing is for the working man but we’re never really sure whether he’s being sincere or if he’s just a demagogue who is mostly interested in increasing his own power. Bobby Ciaro is certainly loyal to him and since Bobby is played by the film’s director, it’s hard not to feel that the film expects us to share Bobby’s admiration. But, as a character, Hoffa never really seems to earn anyone’s loyalty. We’re never sure what’s going on inside of Hoffa’s head. Jack Nicholson is always entertaining to watch and it’s interesting to see him play a real person as opposed to just another version of his own persona but his performance in Hoffa is almost totally on the surface. With the exception of a few scenes early in the film, there’s doesn’t seem to be anything going on underneath all of the shouting.
The majority of Hoffa is told via flashback. Scenes of Hoffa and Bobby in the film’s present are mixed with scenes of Hoffa and Bobby first meeting and taking over the Teamsters. Sometimes, the structure of the film is a bit cumbersome but there are a few scenes — especially during the film’s first thirty minutes — that achieve a certain visual poetry. There’s a scene where Hoffa helps to change a man’s flat tire while selling him on the union and the combination of falling snow, the dark city street, and Hoffa talking about the working man makes the scene undeniably effective. The scenes where Hoffa spars with Bobby Kennedy are also effective, with Nicholson projecting an intriguing blue collar arrogance as he belittles the abrasively ivy league Bobby. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to those scenes. By the time Hoffa becomes a rich and influential man, you realize that the film isn’t really sure what it wants to say about Jimmy Hoffa. Does it want to condemn Hoffa for getting seduced by power or does it want to excuse Hoffa’s shady dealings as just being what he had to do to protect the men in his union? The film truly doesn’t seem to know.
Hoffa is definitely not an offer that you shouldn’t refuse but, at the same time, it’s occasionally effective. A few of the scenes are visually appealing and the cast is full of character actors like John C. Reilly, J.T. Walsh, Frank Whaley, and Nicholas Pryor. It’s not a disaster like The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Hoffa is an offer that you can take or leave.
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I love this movie because of the sleaziest of reasons: nowhere else are you going to get to see Danny DeVito banging hookers and talking tough to guys twice his height. There’s a terrific scene where he pulls a gun on Cliff Gorman and manhandles him as if he were a five year old and in another one, DeVito repeatedly shoves an IRS agent out of a suite of offices, threatening to throw the guy out of window if doesn’t leave and damn if DeVito doesn’t sell that scene.