Jimmy Hoffa (Jack Nicholson) sits in a car in the parking lot of a diner with his associate Bobby Ciaro (Danny DeVito), wondering what is holding up the men they were supposed to be meeting. Ciaro takes time to reminisce privately over the journey they have both been on since they first met back in the mid-nineteen-thirties and he was a humble truck driver who was being run into the ground by the demands of his bosses as transporting goods around the country as quickly as possible was becoming more and more imperative. Hoffa had started a new union known as the Teamsters to look after the working man such as Ciaro, but they were taking some persuading to join up as to do so would jeopardise their livelihood...
David Mamet's script for Hoffa, a fictionalised biopic of the notorious union boss, had kicked around Hollywood for some time before it landed on the desk of Danny DeVito who was establishing himself as a director of tart comedies. Not that there was much humour here, which offered the star a chance to prove his dramatic chops with material that was appropriately important, for the exact circumstances of its subject come his apparent final days remained a mystery to that day - and indeed, are still unsolved now. Surely this meant their prospective movie had a great hook, to posit a solution to the enigma that had outfoxed countless investigators both professional and amateur since 1975?
Alas, it didn't work out that way, and though it has picked up some belated appreciation over the years, in spite of carrying a genuine megastar in Jack Nicholson audiences simply were not interested in a film that looked like a lot of hard work for very little pay-off. Even its fans would admit the solution this invented was just that: an invention that did not fit what few facts we knew about the case, and because Hoffa's disappearance was the main reason he is recalled decades later, no matter that he was an important cultural figure in the United States for about as long as J. Edgar Hoover was, for example, that there was hardly any attempt to engage with real life was a sticking point for potential viewers.
Not helping was that the director cast himself as Hoffa's confidante and right hand man, except no such person existed, he was a composite character at best, and this spoke to cutting of narrative corners more than it did creating an informative story. You were offered various incidents in Hoffa's life that had you pondering how much of a working class hero or gangster-affiliated villain he actually was, yet it was Ciaro who was in effect the main character, which scuppered the movie dramatically from the start, especially because in many scenes he was patently intended to be an intimidating tough guy, which DeVito was about two feet too short to pull off. Fortunately for the integrity of the production, Nicholson was superbly cast, and not lapsing into caricature as he was all too frequently asked to do in the work from the latter years of his screen career, the makeup minimal but creating a personality who was completely convincing.
You just wished the framework for that characterisation - tough, rough, uncouth, corrupt yet with a curious integrity of belief - had been better thought through. There were some neat stylistic touches, such as the clever scene transitions or the way the realistic sequences would fade into ones captured in almost dreamlike studio sets which kept you on your toes, however it was difficult to get a handle on the whole affair, to find a way in to settle down with a barrage of information, conjecture and outright stuff just made up with nothing to indicate which was which. DeVito hired some excellent character actors to bolster a star performance that overshadowed them anyway, J.T. Walsh and John C. Reilly among them, but this was Nicholson's movie as far as the acting went, carrying it through too much that frustrated. The parts where Hoffa tangled with Robert Kennedy (Kevin Anderson) brought out the themes of class and aspiration that were overpowered by the sheer size of the project, the crowd scenes especially well arranged, but it was too much of the proverbial curate's egg in the end. Music by David Newman.