Saturday, 6 September 2014

Movie Review: Hoffa (1992)


A biography of the legendary leader of the Teamsters Union, Hoffa bounces on the surface of superficiality and never comes close to properly exploring neither the person nor the issues that defined him.

The film starts in 1975 on the day Hoffa (Jack Nicholson) died, as he and his close associate Bobby Ciaro (Danny DeVito) wait for a meeting in the parking lot of a secluded diner. Flashbacks recount the story of Hoffa's rise to power. He first meets Ciaro in the 1930s, as Hoffa fights to organize truck drivers into a union. Hoffa is not afraid of violent methods, and one of his trusted friends Billy Flynn (Robert Prosky) is killed in a fire bombing gone wrong. There are frequent large scale and vicious clashes between pro- and anti-union forces.

A turning point in the struggle for workers' right is an alliance that Hoffa creates with organized crime, represented by mob boss D'Allesandro (Armand Assante). The Teamsters Union is formed and Hoffa gains power, money, influence and notoriety, but still presents himself as a man of the people. Ciaro gradually becomes Hoffa's closest advisor, while Pete Connelly (John C. Reilly) is also admitted into Hoffa's inner circle. But Hoffa becomes a target for anti-corruption officials and politicians, including an idealistic Bobby Kennedy (Kevin Anderson), precipitating his spectacular downfall.

Hoffa's problems are many, but start with a surprisingly spineless script by David Mamet. Every opportunity to delve into Hoffa's background, motivation, and leadership talent is missed, the film often fading away just when Hoffa is getting into his groove. Moments that should have been seminal, such as Hoffa exerting his influence on Ciaro during their foundational truck ride, or the critical negotiations with the mob, are just edited out in an astounding example of either lazy writing or clueless editing.

The film is also silent about Hoffa's upbringing and influences, and he is just presented as the mysterious organizer dropped into a period of labour strife and inspired by...nothing. And too much time is spent on a ponderous imagining of Hoffa's final hours, his mysterious disappearance theorized as a meeting-gone-wrong at an out of the way roadside diner.

Equally poor is the treatment of all secondary characters, who are sketched in the most rudimentary manner. Bobby Ciaro is a fictional amalgamation of Hoffa's associates but too often the movie appears to be about him, while the other union bosses, underworld types, family members, politicians and enforcement officials drift in and out of the film at perfunctory intervals, offering no context and spouting stock lines.

Danny DeVito's directing is sometimes clever but mostly succeeds in amateurishly pointing to itself, with an over-reliance on rookie zoom and pan tricks, and flourishing musical crescendos every time a large-scale brawl erupts between armies of extras.

The good moments in Hoffa come courtesy of some good set designs, including the recreation of grim 1930s blue collar work environments. The large crowd scenes are well-handled, and Nicholson does his best to salvage a person out of the wreckage of the script. In a performance that is mostly under control, Nicholson at least finds the inner fire and magnetic intensity that drove Hoffa from grimy obscurity to the riches bestowed on the top union boss in the land.

Underwhelming and lacklustre, Hoffa is cause for a grievance.






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