On the one hand, HOFFA is a sprawling epic about the labor battles of the early Twentieth Century, featuring Jack Nicholson in epic, sprawling nose makeup. On the other hand, it has Danny DeVito as Jimmy H’s chief right hand thug — which for all of Danny’s tough-guy persona (and his acting is fine), often feels a lot like going into a street fight against a cadre of Wicked Witches, with only the Lollipop Guild as your wing man.
DeVito also holds directing honors, working from a gritty script by Hollywood genius David Mamet, and he displays a deft touch, aside from his casting decisions regarding himself. The movie is briskly paced, and full of wonderful period details. Not too many tough guys today running around in berets and suspenders. Nicholson is in fine form, and while he still chews scenery, he at least has the decency to swallow it. The film could have gotten bogged down in too much of the political nonsense around Hoffa’s ascent to the head of the Teamsters, but it wisely stays in the gutter, as DeVito and his thugs start riots, firebomb offices, and stare down mobsters.
Interwoven through the entire film is an extended sequence of Jimmy Hoffa waiting at a truck stop, in what is clearly meant to be the twilight of his career. The film doesn’t shy away from the mystery of Jimmy’s fate. The solution may not be as earth-shattering as everyone imagines, but it’s true to the story. This intercutting does tend to draw out the length of the film, and they probably could have used another round at the editing bays. But all in all, this is an entertaining drama with excellent acting in the lead roles, and a biting script by Mamet.