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By Desson Howe
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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Jimmy Hoffa was many things. Chances are, warm fuzzy fella wasn't one of them. In "Hoffa," Jack Nicholson plays the tough-talking Teamster leader with friendly edges. Suggesting a crew-cut teddy bear with an endearing deviated septum, he exhales valiantly through clogged nostrils. He smacks his lips together, like someone who has awakened himself by swallowing his own drool. His eyes tread water in a stupefied gaze, behind a Mussolini-esque nose job.

Only Nicholson's beguiling personality could lend heft to such theatrics: He makes an extremely watchable figure. But his efforts are pointless. Directed by Danny DeVito, "Hoffa" is the emptiest prestige picture of the year. And that's including the first hour of "Malcolm X." The only thing at work in this two-hour-20-minute movie is time.

Scriptwriter David Mamet, who loves the sound of his own exposition, imbues the union boss with pseudo-epic grandeur. It's an uphill battle, this "Hoffa of Arabia" project. Nicholson hops heroically into truckdrivers' cabs, changes their wheels and sings a song of union. He then leads a fledgling union to awesome victory over scabs, riot cops, management figures and other labor-drama archetypes.

The script blithely deals with Hoffa's less-than-saintly rulings over his own minions, and shows only superficially his association with the mob. After four decades of tilting at capitalistic big guns, from the mafia to Robert F. Kennedy's Justice Department, Nicholson's throne begins to totter. Suddenly, he's facing jail and political separation from his only love -- the union. The story starts in the mid-1970s -- on the eve of the real-life Hoffa's mysterious disappearance. Nicholson and trusted lieutenant DeVito are waiting in a limousine at a roadhouse cafe for a meeting with crime boss Armand Assante. They wait and wait -- Beckett style. And while they're wait, DeVito has a two-hour flashback.

DeVito's casting as Nicholson's fictional confidant, a former truckdriver who supports his boss from humble beginnings to final fate, is the movie's second biggest mistake. To add insult to injury, he makes himself a ladykiller too. "I don't want your money," says a glowingly satisfied hooker, as DeVito nonchalantly dresses himself.

The biggest mistake is DeVito's direction. He fills every moment with soaring, weighty music and spectacle-happy cinematography. Like a kid clutching power candy, he can't let go. In his hands, a riot between strikers and management goons is as cheesily choregraphed as a soundstage musical finale. Everything is conceived as a stylized, great-movie moment -- with nothing behind it.

"Hoffa" is literally taken from DeVito's point of view. So that the diminutive performer can be the same height as his screen partners, the camera is placed waaay down. This constant troll's-eye view is highly disconcerting, as if the project was filmed by a clutch of Time Bandits.

There are some enjoyable elements, in addition to Nicholson's performance-in-progress antics. It's devilish fun to watch Camelot get a shafting, as ambitious Robert F. Kennedy (played with weedy aplomb by Kevin Anderson) clashes petulantly with Hoffa at a Senate committee hearing. There is also a tremendously funny scene in which Nicholson, DeVito and Assante go hunting to talk underworld business. As the two leaders negotiate, DeVito watches open-mouthed as a deer ambles past the neglectful huntsmen.

What he does about it is one of the movie's best moments. But faced with the bigger game of this movie, DeVito's sights aren't quite so on the mark.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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