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`Hoffa' Fails to Go Below Surface

By David SterrittStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 28, 1992



NEW YORK

YOU may have thought union leader James R. Hoffa was as complex and many-faceted as the American labor movement he strongly influenced, but Danny DeVito is here to simplify things for us.

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"Jimmy Hoffa was a man who dedicated every waking hour to benefiting people," says Mr. DeVito in the publicity for "Hoffa," which he directed. True, he adds later, Hoffa was opposed by police officers and strikebreakers, so "he had to align himself with a certain element that would support his guys." But you can't have a labor movement without "blood and sweat, and an amazing amount of pain," so what's a little crime and corruption from an "element" that's willing to help?

"Hoffa," starring Jack Nicholson in the title role, goes a little way toward acknowledging the contradictions and complexities that characterized Hoffa and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union during the time when he led it. At moments you can see glimmerings of a dialectical story that would balance the ideals (often admirable) and the compromises (often deplorable) that proceeded side-by-side throughout Hoffa's career.

But more often the movie is just plain muddled - showing the Hoffa forces performing a heinous crime one minute, then glamorizing and sentimentalizing them as if the other stuff had never happened. In the end, we learn little of value about Hoffa, the historical period he affected, or the controversial movement he represented. Which is a disappointment, given the resources and ambitions that clearly went into producing this picture.

Another problem with "Hoffa" is the structure of its screenplay. Twentieth Century Fox is patting itself on the back for avoiding a straight chronological approach in the movie, but the alternative chosen by screenwriter David Mamet doesn't pack much punch. The narrative begins with Hoffa and his sidekick waiting for a rendezvous in a truck-stop parking lot. Then it swings into flashbacks from Hoffa's earlier life, returning periodically to the truck stop and the mysterious appointment, which eventually provides the movie with its climax and conclusion.

This isn't the most original way to tell a story, and after a while you can't help guessing what's about to happen in that parking lot. So why can't Hoffa figure it out? That's one of the film's unsatisfying enigmas.

As weak as "Hoffa" is in many respects, it won't die at the box office if Mr. Nicholson's performance succeeds in capturing the public imagination. Nicholson is a splendid movie star, and he gives "Hoffa" all the energy he has. This is one of his more imitative performances, however, growing less from his own fertile imagination than from a desire to mimic Hoffa's actual appearance, manner, and voice.

In some scenes he combines this skin-deep realism with touches of real inspiration; in others he just goes through the paces. The result falls somewhere between Robert De Niro in "Raging Bull" and Broderick Crawford in "The Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover," capturing neither the sheer brilliance of the former nor the wild eccentricity of the latter.

DeVito is reasonably convincing as Hoffa's main assistant, and he has directed the picture competently, although he never finds the richly sardonic tone that distinguished "The War of the Roses," the best picture of his filmmaking career.

* The film is rated * for violence and strong language; it also contains some nudity.