'Hoffa' is a baffling anti-biopic purportedly about Jimmy Hoffa (Jack Nicholson), the notorious, disappeared leader of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. What it ends up being is a slideshow of Hoffa wheeling and dealing.Towards the end of the film, when Hoffa goes off to jail and someone tells a child "Wave goodbye to Grandpa," we say "Wait a minute. We've hardly even seen his wife and kids, for Christ's sake. What's this Grandpa shit??"
Hoffa is handsomely assembled. Director Danny DeVito (who also costars as the composite character Bobby Ciaro, Hoffa's right-hand man) stages some visually inventive scenes and transitions. But the movie also has to be called very bad. The span of forty years goes by in a ridiculous blur; DeVito never lets us know what city or even what decade we're in, and writer David Mamet piles on the violent, profane language without bothering to shape the scenes dramatically so that we know what's important and what's just posturing.
Most of the film, indeed, is just posturing: Hoffa making triumphant speeches; Hoffa telling off Bobby Kennedy (Kevin Anderson, in a grating impersonation); Hoffa grandstanding. A lot of this was better-handled in Mike Newell's 1983 TV movie Blood Feud (with Robert Blake playing Hoffa as ferociously as you'd expect). What impression of Hoffa do DeVito and Mamet want us to come away with? That he was a tough and fearless bastard watching out for the little guy? That he was a sell-out in bed with the mob? Who knows?
Hoffa raises many questions and gives no answers, but this shouldn't be mistaken for artistic ambiguity. Wearing a putty nose that throws his whole face out of whack, Nicholson makes the first half hour or so entertaining, but then his performance begins to repeat itself.It's a shame that DeVito, a genuinely talented director with the right script, chose this particular bad script (sorry, I really can't take Mamet seriously as some sort of screenwriting guru when his resumé is long on stuff like this) as his first and, thus far, only dramatic effort.