The whereabouts of Jimmy Hoffa aren’t revealed in Danny DeVito’s biopic about the notorious Teamsters boss, and neither is much about what drove the man to become a union leader, or compelled him to so readily get into bed with organized crime, or anything else of much substance, for that matter. Instead, as scripted with endless profanities by David Mamet, Hoffa merely lionizes its subject with an uncritical eye—and, consequently, stands as a testament to not only the legacy of its subject but also, more tellingly, to our fondness for gangsters (and the cinema that celebrates them).
Eschewing any discussion of Hoffa’s upbringing, the story begins with Hoffa (Jack Nicholson, under a layer of facial prosthetics) recruiting truck driver Bobby (DeVito) into the Teamsters. There, DeVito becomes the Joe Pesci to Nicholson’s Robert De Niro, roughing up those who would defy his boss and acting—as in a key hunting trip—like a loose canon with an itchy trigger finger. Though DeVito shoots his material with every prestige-pic device in the book, that crucial hunting scene is one of many that’s obviously been staged on a set, thereby highlighting the artificiality of Hoffa. Nicholson rants and rages, DeVito struts and fumes, Armand Assante (as Hoffa’s mob partner) suavely smokes cigars, and everyone else also entertainingly overacts to their heart’s delight. Never does DeVito’s film seriously cast a censorious glance at its protagonist, even as it makes clear that the man was a vicious, self-interested crook in deep with organized crime.
As such, Hoffa mimics forefathers like The Godfather and Goodfellas in its alluring depiction of the mafia life (and the power and sex it affords), and yet distances itself from those films by refusing to ultimately condemn its characters for their misbegotten ways. Instead, in scenes of Hoffa riling up crowds and winning elections and screaming at RFK, it paints a wholly romantic portrait of the man and his money-skimming, building-detonating, riot-starting behavior. In the process, the film proves the rare Hollywood underworld epic that doesn’t hypocritically mince words about the cretins it adores—and, by extension, it owns up to, and embraces, the unabashed century-long love affair between movies (and movie audiences) and gangsters.
Availability: Hoffa is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Amazon or your local video store, and to rent or purchase through the major digital outlets.