This Labor Day weekend I’m thinking about HOFFA. Not the long disappeared Teamsters leader, but the 1992 movie about him. I think about this film every Labor Day – and it’s not uncommon for me to watch some or all of it before the holiday is over. Simply put, Danny DeVito’s HOFFA would easily land in my Top 10 list of vastly underrated American movies – probably in one of the top three spots.
The argument could be made that this was Jack Nicholson’s last tour de force in a lead role. (One could make the same case for 1997’s AS GOOD AS IT GETS.) Not to say that Nicholson didn’t do memorable and/or good work after his portrayal of Hoffa but this is the last time he seemed to fully lose himself in a character. The nuanced humanity he brings to the role in spite of — not because of — the prosthetics and make-up is a sight to behold.
“Hoffa” is a remarkable movie, an original and vivid cinematic work, but is that enough? I think it is. Others will have legitimate objections to the ways the film operates.
Indeed, others objected – with a typical list of nit-picky items that usually accompany historical biopics. But with HOFFA the objections seem to me more rote than applicable. Critics were split, box office was dismal. Regardless, the film is a collaborative work of art worthy of (re)consideration.
David Mamet’s screenplay is both epic and personal. It is neither sentimental nor defensive. It plays fast and loose with the facts but it is truthful in its portrayal of the shades of grey that have always colored American politics and business.
Danny DeVito came to HOFFA already an accomplished director, having helmed two dark comedies – THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN and THE WAR OF THE ROSES. Here he created a film that one critic called “almost impressionistic.” And that’s a fair assessment. DeVito is not afraid to create fly-away sets, use forced perspective, move the camera grandly, and shoot exterior scenes inside a soundstage, in order to create powerful, memorable images.
This from Roger Ebert’s original review —
“Hoffa” shows DeVito as a genuine filmmaker. Here is a movie that finds the right look and tone for its material. Not many directors would have been confident enough to simply show us Jimmy Hoffa instead of telling us all about him. This is a movie that makes its points between the lines, in what is not said. It’s not so much about what happened to Jimmy Hoffa, as about the fact that something eventually would.
David Newman’s score is one of the best examples of classic movie music that hits all the right notes without veering into cliché. The last cue in film, “Jimmy’s Last Ride”, is one of my favorite pieces of film music ever. This was an era when it was not uncommon for a track to be created specifically for the trailer. Newman composed a 2minute 15second track for HOFFA’s trailer that still gets my full attention when it pops up in my iTunes library.
So, to all the people who worked so hard to make this film – I salute you this Labor Day and thank you for your effort. I’ve enjoyed the fruit of your labor for many years.