You can always tell when a film is trying too hard. In Danny DeVito's 1992 biopic Hoffa, the set pieces are a little too staged, the music a little too sweeping, the shots held a little too long for desired dramatic effect, etc.
But what Hoffa doesn't lack, much like the man himself, is balls. The film might be one of the ballsiest films I've seen: the performances are cranked to 11, for better or worse, and even if the set pieces and the way they are shot are hitting me over the head a little too obviously, they are, from beginning to end, insane. DeVito, as director, takes nothing for granted.
And in the end, isn't that what a would-be epic who is schmoozing a bit too much to Oscar all about? There is vanity in this film as DeVito becomes the anti-Jiminy Cricket with a LOT of 'cool' moments with guns and naked broads but you got to admire the little guy for shooting for the stars and, hit or miss, plugging along without fear or hearing the word 'no'.
Can't film on an abandoned, lonely road with a truck late at night due to whatever reason?: build a road, create the stars and shoot it. Don't have the time for location scouting for a pivotal hunting scene in the woods? Screw it, bring the woods yourself and build an ENTIRE forest. Want to show union breakers braining some Teamsters with barbed wire and tire irons? Put it in close-up baby and go heavy on the extras.
Balls ... this film has it. I'm tellin' ya! And nothing epitomizes those balls like Jack Nicholson himself, playing the charismatic but volatile Jimmy Hoffa, the man who has union philosophy in his blood. Jack throws on a fake nose, some fake teeth, and a realllllllllly fake accent and simply BECOMES the man. Hoffa, the film, lives or dies on the interpretation of Hoffa the man and while I mostly bought it, many did not ... and the film failed because of that.
Like a lot of period films with ambition, Hoffa sweats the small stuff and does it well. Costumes, set design, period specific backgrounds and music all hit the mark ... the only thing lacking is a solid emotional foundation. Jimmy Hoffa starts off as kind of aggressively charming but ends up becoming a wild man who screams his way through every scene. While making the blood pump does it make the heart soar?
DeVito, working off a script by David Mamet, helps himself a bit by setting up a tense and ambiguous frame story in which Hoffa sits and waits for a meeting of some sort in the middle of nowhere. Due to the high publicity of Hoffa's demise, you feel a sense of dread as Hoffa awaits ... something. Death? Torture? Coffee? This brilliant, and subtle, sense of suspense gives the rest of the proceedings something to work towards.
But Mamet/DeVito stay away from politics and simply explain Hoffa's fight: for the unionization and fair treatment of laborers. While the film makes no judgements on Hoffa's more 'mob friendly' activities it also passes no judgement on him as a person either. This is biography without a message and while that seems the ethical thing to do, is it the most entertaining?
The film is framed in the year 1975 while the continuing story in between goes from the early 1930s until those 1970s. And all the transitions are flawless ... the Academy Award nominated makeup ages the actors perfectly as time goes on ... creating a sense of scope. The proceedings thus LOOK epic even if they don't feel it.
Hoffa also has excellent acting performances from top to bottom (outside of Nicholson, as his performance is truly polarizing). DeVito is thoughtful and sometimes menacing as Hoffa's right hand man (a fictional character put together from pieces of other real people involved in the story) and, essentially, our narrator from the outside looking in.
Armand Assante, seemingly typecast as an Italian Mafioso, also gives a thoughtful and quiet performance, making you realize that perhaps Hoffa's friends are merely friends in the sense of 'keep your friends close and your enemies closer'. And look out for a young John C. Reilly as a green union man following in the footsteps of his uncle (played by the always underrated J.T. Walsh).
So if you are on the fence about watching Hoffa, here is how I rate it.
Heart and Emotion: 3 out of 10
Screenwriting: 4 out of 10
Acting: 7 out of 10
Production: 8 out of 10
Balls: to the wall.