'Hoffa' is such a stinker it begs to be boycotted

December 25, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Hoffa" appears made for the smallest of all possible audiences, America's shrinking population of big game hunters. And why big game hunters? Because they alone among us seem to like things that are both large and dead.

The movie is a corpse. It's a fish that stinks from the head. They ought to bury it in the Jersey Meadowlands.

It never begins to build a case that its hero, Teamsters boss and tough guy Jimmy Hoffa, is worthy of the time and money the film lavishes on him. It has no theory of his personality, it offers no coherent account of his life and times, it's not a revisionist screed arguing his innocence on pension fund fraud, and it can't begin to evoke the romantic idealism that caused working men to risk everything to build a union. It just sits there, sucking time off the surface of Planet Earth.

Jack Nicholson, under a prosthetic nose that only makes him look like Jack Nicholson with a prosthetic nose, snarls and sulks his way through the title role, while Danny DeVito, who also directed, scurries about his feet acting like a reject from the remake of "Little Caesar."

But focus, for a moment, on the absurdity of Nicholson's rubber nose. Here's a multimillion-dollar movie about a guy that almost nobody remembers, much less remembers what he looked like! There's no point in getting the nose right if you can't get the life right, and even if they got the nose wrong . . . who would know?

From a script that David Mamet appears to have written on a Tuesday and a Wednesday, the movie is structured -- absurdly -- like a roadshow "Waiting for Godot," with Hoffa and his buddy and bodyguard Bobby Ciaro (DeVito) playing wisecracking Vladimir and Estragon in a Jersey parking lot while gangster Armand Assante takes his time in showing up. Meanwhile, the camera swirls in on DeVito's unlovely mug and sad eyes for Flashbacks with a capital F, which it gets to via Dissolves with a capital D.

In fact, one of the ranker sillinesses of the film is the way DeVito indulges in '30s bio-pic conventions to no point. The dissolves -- a moon in the sky will become the hubcap of a moving automobile, or the screen will wipe left to right, right to left, up to down and down to up -- grow progressively ridiculous.

He also uses a lot of patently movie-phony sound-stage sets, not as part of some ironic commentary on the absurdity of the genre but because he doesn't seem to know any better. What else could explain a Teamsters' Washington office with a cheesy painting of the Capitol in the background or a Pennsylvania woods made of papier-mache and painted mountains? At his zaniest, DeVito becomes some sort of twisted Busby Berkeley, photographing a labor riot from God's point of view and reducing the whole thing to abstraction.

This might not be so irritating if anything else were happening in the movie, but basically it's a two-man show with a cast of thousands. Nicholson snarls and DeVito scurries. No other characters exist, except as stage props. Assante gets no close-ups and never comes into focus. Stalwart character actors like John T. Flynn, Robert Prosky and Bruno Kirby show up for a scene or two, get no close-ups, and disappear.

As an account of Hoffa's life, the film is worthless. His struggle with Robert F. Kennedy, first as a Senate assistant and then as U.S. attorney general, seems to come from nowhere. And Kennedy (Kevin Anderson) is represented as a particularly obnoxious prep school twerp who bedevils Hoffa because he doesn't like the way he dresses.

The final level of the film's goofiness is an elaborate assassination scenario for which no proof at all exists and which, more importantly, seems stylistically out of sync with the dour things that have gone before. It's like a shoot-up in "Under Siege," with a wily mob assassin pulling out a silenced Beretta and doing the deed and whole fleets of assorted minions dropping out of the sky to tidy up. The movie has become a zany caper flick.

There may be one minor social value in all this. If Jimmy Hoffa is actually buried in Giants Stadium, indisputable proof should be available by nightfall: That entire 700 million-ton assemblage of concrete and girder will flip upside down as its sole occupant rolls over in his grave.

'Hoffa'

Starring Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito.

Directed by Danny DeVito.

Released by Twentieth Century Fox.

R-rated.

*

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