Big-budget Hollywood biopics are alluring in about a hundred ways. In a single epic package, they offer history and gossip, public spectacle and private psychodrama, true-life tales of fame, fortune, ambition, and ruin. Yet there are also a hundred ways in which a biopic can go wrong. For every Young Mr. Lincoln, Buddy Holly Story, or Malcolm X — films in which actors and directors seem to enter the very soul of their subject — there have been countless biopics that were too reverent (Gandhi), too grandiose (Freud), too historically inaccurate (Lady Sings the Blues), too sketchy (Lenny), or just too dumb (The Greatest).
What’s rare is a prestige biographical drama that commits all these sins at once. I went into Chaplin and Hoffa just about smacking my lips with anticipation; I walked out slack-jawed, droopy-eyed, numb to the point of exhaustion. Both movies suffer from weak scripts and scattershot direction. What truly unites them, however, is the astonishing lack of vision lurking beneath their deficiencies. In each case, the people behind the camera never even begin to establish why they’re making this movie about this man. Watching Chaplin and Hoffa, we get a mountain of detail about the lives of Charlie Chaplin and Jimmy Hoffa but hardly a clue as to why the former became the most mythical popular artist of the 20th century and the latter the most important American labor leader.
Chaplin, starring Robert Downey Jr., is the typical lump-in-the-throat worship job we’ve come to expect from Sir Richard Attenborough (Gandhi, Cry Freedom). Since the 69-year-old Attenborough, who started out as an actor, has roots deep in show business, I figured the settings of his new movie — British music halls, early-Hollywood backlots — might bring out the savvy insider’s spark that his political biographies have lacked. Chaplin, however, turns out to be the worst sort of impersonal, by-the-numbers celebrity saga. It’s 2 hours and 24 minutes of processed TV-movie filler.
Downey, sporting false choppers that give him a neat facsimile of Chaplin’s toothy smile, offers a graceful re-creation of the comic’s slapstick balleticism. On a music-hall stage, where he captivates the crowd with an inspired drunk routine, Downey gets the gyroscopic perpetuity of Chaplin’s movements, the way he made the very notion of random buffoonery seem choreographed. (The first truly modern screen artist, he revealed the hidden grace in a disordered world.) Given the affection and skill with which Downey approaches the role, Attenborough’s most astonishing blunder was to spend almost no time showing us how Chaplin filmed his comedies or devised the character that made him famous, that impishly shabby Victorian Everyman known as the Little Tramp. At one point, Chaplin simply grabs a cane, bowler hat, and false mustache, and voilà — instant legend!
Ah, but what of Charlie’s private life, the succession of notoriously young women who became his mistresses and wives? Well, they’re in the movie — for two minutes apiece. A troupe of lively and beautiful actresses (Diane Lane, Penelope Ann Miller, Marisa Tomei, Moira Kelly) are paraded on screen under a ton of depersonalizing makeup and given virtually no characters to play. As a director, Attenborough has never shown much interest in women, and there’s an undercurrent of misogyny in the way the film reduces Chaplin’s relationships to mere dramatic blips.
What’s most mysteriously absent, however, is any sense of Chaplin’s own drive, as man or artist. Downey evokes the comic’s famous off-camera melancholy without hinting at the passion beneath: This Chaplin just seems like a bland, morose gentleman. And Attenborough seems far more captivated by Chaplin’s self-righteous political grandstanding at the end of The Great Dictator than he does by the entire universe of silent comedy that Chaplin invented. It’s telling that Downey is allowed to do his most expansive work as the elderly, misanthropic Chaplin, whom we see, in a tired framing device, being interviewed by an editor (Anthony Hopkins) for his autobiography. Chaplin gives you the feeling that Attenborough — out of unconscious rivalry? — is most comfortable portraying Charlie Chaplin not as the anarchic pop genius he was but as a stuffed-and-mounted icon, the sort of quaint historical figure they make bloodless biopics about.
It’s doubtful many moviegoers under 30 will have any real idea who Jimmy Hoffa was. After all, his most infamous claim to fame isn’t the fact that he organized America’s truckers, or that he did so with the bullying, take-no-prisoners attitude of a working-class demagogue, or that he was up to his neck in underworld connections. It’s the mysterious way he vanished, in 1975, from the face of the earth (presumably deep-sixed by the mob).
The most irritating thing about Hoffa is that even after you’ve sat through Danny DeVito’s turgid, meaninglessly sprawling account of the Teamster boss’ rise and fall, you still won’t have any idea who Jimmy Hoffa was. From virtually the opening scene, in which Hoffa (Jack Nicholson) is seen hitching rides with truckers, including his future sidekick, Bobby Ciaro (DeVito), to preach the ways of the union (does he intend to organize the Teamsters one convert at a time?), David Mamet’s script is ludicrously vague about the particulars of Hoffa’s life. It’s not really a script at all; it’s an outline — an abstract sprinkled with Mametesque profanity. Before long, Hoffa is staging violent strikes and cutting deals with a Mafia chief (Armand Assante). Yet it’s never really clear what decade we’re in, what choices Hoffa was making, what was going on in his private life (at one point, he is suddenly married), or what, exactly, he accomplished for the truckers. DeVito just piles on the swirling crowd scenes and ”epic” visual effects, none of which can camouflage the void at their center.
Was Hoffa motivated by a love for the working man or a lust for power? The answer is both, but Hoffa is intent on canonizing its unscrupulous hero. The filmmakers never quite seem to grasp that a man can be courageous and monstrous at the same time (the central theme of a movie as rich as The Godfather). True, the film is perfectly up-front about Hoffa’s mob dealings, but it portrays them with a glib shrug, as a necessary evil. When Hoffa is dragged before a U.S. subcommittee investigating those connections (it’s led by hotshot young lawyer Robert Kennedy, played by Kevin Anderson as a simpering Saturday Night Live caricature), the film actually makes the government anticorruption forces look like a bunch of wimpy spoilsports. This isn’t history, it’s David Mamet’s blowhard machismo, the mindless glorification of a leader who behaved like a scoundrel but knew how to talk tough, damn it.
If only he were an an entertaining scoundrel. As played by Nicholson in a badgering, whiny performance that’s all swagger and no depth — he’s like James Cagney on helium — this Hoffa seems less the ambiguously motivated organizer who struck Faustian bargains than a raucous stock bully inflated to larger-than-life dimensions. When an actor as great as Nicholson gives a performance this monotonous, it raises the question, Why make a movie about Jimmy Hoffa in the first place? The answer, I suspect, is that it wasn’t so much Hoffa’s life as his lurid, headline-making death that hooked a major studio into backing this project. The result is somehow perversely appropriate: a massive Hollywood biopic about a man who never quite seems there. In Chaplin and Hoffa, Charlie Chaplin and Jimmy Hoffa aren’t characters, exactly. They’re ghosts — mere images — from the past, and the movies go up in smoke right along with them.