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By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 25, 1992


Danny DeVito
Jack Nicholson;
Danny DeVito;
Armand Assante;
J. T. Walsh;
John Reilly;
Frank Whaley;
Kevin Anderson;
John P. Ryan;
Robert Prosky;
Natalija Nogulich;
Nicholas Pryor;
Paul Guifloyle;
Karen Young;
Cliff Gorman
Under 17 restricted

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Danny DeVito, David Mamet and Jack Nicholson roll up their sleeves and make muscles in "Hoffa," a whole lot of chest-thumping and jaw-flapping in vain praise of "da working man's" friend. Puffed up with Mamet's brawny bromides and DeVito's self-indulgent direction, this bio-pic would be an altogether empty load were it not for Nicholson, all snake eyes and snarls as the Teamsters boss. It's a tanker with a cargo of Brut, barreling brakeless down a steep grade.

James R. Hoffa's history, had screenwriter Mamet mined it, was decidedly rich in dramatic potential. But this isn't about Hoffa's life, it's about Mamet's fantasies, and DeVito's. It's their chance to spit on their hands, to sweat into their hatbands.

A la Spike Lee in "Malcolm X," DeVito opens the film with a self-aggrandizing shot of himself as Hoffa's doglike right-hand man, Bobby Ciaro. Smoking and thinking, but mostly smoking, old Bobby is clearly getting ready to have the film equivalent of a seizure -- a flashback that'll show how he came to be here at this truck stop. Magically we are transported back to some time or another (the movie's not much on pesky specifics), and there's Bobby sleeping in his truck on the side of some deserted road. Suddenly Hoffa appears out of the darkness, like Puck of the Teamsters.

Hoffa forces his way into Bobby's cab and proselytizes him on the benefits of the union and then disappears into the night, leaving behind only his card with the inscription, "Give this man whatever he needs. James Hoffa." The next thing we know, we're back to the future and the card's torn and cruddy in one of DeVito's pretentious transitions. James R., now a graying ex-con, and Bobby are waiting nervously at the truck stop for a longtime Mafia associate (Armand Assante) who looks to be standing them up.

Bobby (actually an amalgam of Hoffa's cronies) lights up another Camel and has another flashback to some other turning point in Hoffa's rise from local organizer to head of the International Brotherhood. Hoffa, braying and burly, foments riots and leads strikes against a grandiose backdrop that looks like "Batman's" Gotham City. Times were tough, and tough times required tough measures; thus Hoffa's alliance with the mob is portrayed here as if it were the Treaty of Ghent. And the Teamsters' violent tactics are excused as justified, given the bosses' contempt for the plight of the working man.

The film doesn't really tell us much about the labor movement, for all the time it spends at the union hall and on the picket line. It probably reveals even less about Hoffa himself, whose background and personal life are virtually ignored. Nicholson deserves even more credit for this entertaining portrait when you consider that he is playing a walking bullhorn, a loud, one-dimensional character who changes from maniac to megalomaniac over the course of the story.

And though he is the star, he rarely has a scene to himself. Everywhere he goes, there's Bobby at his elbow, sucking another butt. DeVito frequently mistakes smoking for acting, and in this he is not alone. Sometimes the sets look like they're used for curing hams. Of course, in some cases there is no cure. Take Kevin Anderson, who plays Attorney General Bobby Kennedy as if he were a squeak toy.

J.T. Walsh, who also plays opposite Nicholson in "A Few Good Men," and Assante give the film's most understated and perhaps best performances as, respectively, Hoffa's protege and eventual successor, Frank Fitzsimmons, and his mob connection and probable murderer. Robert Prosky leaves a lasting impression in a small role as a rough and ready confederate whose death in a firebombing becomes a running gag for ... who else but DeVito? The auteur also appears in the film's only two scenes with naked babes. "I didn't go with ya for the mone rated R for profanity.y," says a blonde when Bobby offers her a wad of cash. Nah, it's bec


use he was the director. "Hoffa"

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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