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Hoffa;Likely Stories, Vol. 2;Amazing Stories: Book One;The Ratings Game;Throw Momma From the Train;The War of the Roses B+

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It was supposed to be the classy epic that would prove he could direct more than mean little comedies. So how did Danny DeVito’s Hoffa (1992, FoxVideo, $94.98, R) wind up such a joke? Not to be a heckler about it, but this turgid paean to the former labor leader isn’t just a misstep-it’s a pratfall. And now that Hoffa is on video and easily measured against the rest of the DeVito-as- auteur oeuvre, it’s startling to see how little difference there is between what clicks in his earlier comedies and what bombs here. Of course, given the shortcomings of David Mamet’s Hoffa screenplay, maybe no director could have saved it. The script is a slogan-heavy mural that eschews specifics-dates, places, historical context-in favor of mythic posturing. We get only a vague outline of how Hoffa’s battles against the government, the police, and the Mafia helped shaped the Teamsters union. Scenes usually end before anybody discusses anything; the dialogue instead lingers over hollow mantras like ”Here’s da ting” and ”I know dat I know dat Yeah, I know dat.” Jack Nicholson’s tic-infested, one-note performance in the lead doesn’t help focus things either: He speaks self-serving lies and working-man homilies in the same pit-bull snarl. Still, it’s DeVito who finally sinks the enterprise. Playing a fictional sidekick, Bobby Ciaro, he completely stifles his trademark impertinence; the result is a hollow-eyed cipher. Yet as a director, DeVito hasn’t reined in his broad, gimmicky style at all. In fact, the more you compare Hoffa with DeVito’s comedies, the more it seems like a parody of them -without the laughs. Take one of his first made-for-cable directing forays, a 20-minute political satire called ”The Selling of Vince D’Angelo,” available on the hard-to-find tape anthology Likely Stories, Vol. 2 (1983, USA, $19.95, unrated). DeVito plays a New Jersey senatorial candidate who shamelessly manufactures an underdog image to win votes: a TV ad showing a bogus attempted assassination, an election-day plea with a nun at his bedside. It’s a breezy send-up on a par with Hoffa’s two-dimensional vision of Robert F. Kennedy (Kevin Anderson). Here, the young attorney general is rendered as a spoiled-brat pip-squeak grandstanding for reporters but cowering in his seat when Jimmy H. towers over him. It’s so aggressively overdrawn that instead of buying into DeVito’s (and Mamet’s) conception of the man as a snotty ”Hahvahd Yahd” upstart, you shrug it off as cartoon excess. Caricature is in fact DeVito’s metier, a taste he indulges in a Showtime/ Movie Channel feature, The ratings game (1985, Paramount, $79.95, unrated). He stars as Vic DeSalvo, a charlatan producer who puts together TV dreck like Sittin’ Pretty, a Three’s Company knock-off, and The Goombas, starring animated versions of his Italian pals. The excerpts are funny because they play just like real shows. But though Hoffa apes the form of other rise-and- fall sagas (especially Citizen Kane and The Godfather), it misses their spirit. Not that DeVito doesn’t try. He frames Nicholson as if Hoffa were Jesus in a ’50s biblical epic: The man is forever walking among his blue- collar flock, followed by a Steadicam and the swelling strains of a reverent score. Most sadly, Hoffa finds DeVito overdosing on the stylistic touch he pulls off wonderfully in his comedies: wild camera work. In ”The Wedding Ring,” a cursed-jewelry tale from Steven Spielberg’s NBC series collected on Amazing | Stories: Book one (1985, MCA/Universal, $79.95, PG), he seems to whoop, ”Wheee, look at me!” in show-off shots that angle down from ceilings and up from floors. And in throw momma from the train (1987, Orion, $19.98, PG-13) and the war of the roses (1989, FoxVideo, $14.98, R), DeVito doesn’t hesitate to send the camera anywhere to goose the humor. When Momma’s Larry (Billy Crystal) crashes through a door, the camera toboggans down the basement stairs with him. When War’s Barbara Rose (Kathleen Turner) hurls a plate at her spouse (Michael Douglas), we sail along in a flying-china-point-of-view shot. Next to such inspired dexterity, the pointlessly ostentatious camera moves in Hoffa are truly depressing. It doesn’t help that DeVito shot in wide screen, which means that the cropped VHS version keeps scanning left and right to take in the full bustle of crowd scenes. To make transitions portentous, the camera roams until it zeroes in on some object (a round tabletop, a pothole, an ear), and then the image shifts to a matching shape (the moon, a social-club emblem, an eyeball). In the film’s biggest howler, DeVito moves the lens in tight on a car roof from above as Hoffa climbs in and then cuts to a completely unrelated image of a deer hunt. If this were a comedy lampooning directorial pretensions, it would be hilarious. As a stab at Scorsesean style, it’s merely ludicrous. Someday, DeVito may pull off a drama without burlesquing anybody’s look-even his own. In the meantime, for those who rent Hoffa, it’s travesty tonight. Hoffa: D Likely Stories, Vol. 2: C+ Amazing Stories: Book One: B- The Ratings Game: B- Throw Momma From the Train: B The War of the Roses: B+