Whatever happened to fictional characters? You have to wonder with the arrival of the latest HBO world premiere film, "Teamster Boss: The Jackie Presser Story" (at 8 tonight on the premium cable service).
Just a few weeks ago, also on HBO, we saw "Citizen Cohn," with James Woods in a scene-chewing performance as nasty McCarthy-era attorney Roy Cohn, who died in 1986. Later this year, Danny DeVito's "Hoffa" premieres in theaters, with Jack Nicholson as union leader Jimmy Hoffa, who died -- well, whenever.
In "Teamster Boss," we get Brian Dennehy as one of the men who followed Jimmy Hoffa as leader of the troubled and troublesome trucker's union. The real Presser died in 1988 of lung cancer, while under indictment on racketeering charges. The movie opens with fictional scenes of his funeral, yet later we see the real Presser in film clips, testifying before a congressional committee.
So is this history or bio-drama? Who can tell? Based on the book "Mobbed Up," by James Neff, the film woefully confuses techniques of documentary filmmaking and fictional storytelling.
Yet Mr. Dennehy ranks as one of those actors almost always interesting to watch, way back to when he played the sympathetic bartender to Dudley Moore in "10." (He also portrayed real serial killer John Wayne Gacy earlier this year in the miniseries "To Catch a Killer.")
"Teamster Boss" is no exception for Mr. Dennehy -- the actor produces a vigorous portrayal of a man who seemingly wasted much of his early life on booze, broads and bowling, not to mention the worst clothing since the invention of polyester.
Maria Conchita Alonso also occasionally diverts attention as Carmen, the one woman he actually married and might have genuinely cared about. Jeff Daniels plays an FBI man who oversees Presser's eventual role as an informant.
Production notes say Mr. Dennehy spent two hours in makeup each day to become the overweight Presser, donning a false nose, receding hairline and padded clothing. He rolls across the screen like a GMC semi-trailer.
As his Teamster-lieutenant father (Eli Wallach) was suffering a terminal illness, the movie suggests, Presser found the will and inspiration to shed his buffoon image.
Unfortunately, in the murky world of the huge union -- and this movie -- that apparently meant ratting on corrupt union officials to the FBI while also cooperating with the mob. He also had to avoid getting blown up in a car, the fate of several other rival union figures in the film.
Moral ambiguity reigns, and even viewers who find the will to pay attention will lose the thread of the movie's plot manipulations at times.
Unions in general and the Teamsters in particular gain no image improvement from "Teamster Boss," either, although the script attempts to mitigate the organization's tie with organized crime. In a good scene, Presser tries to explain it to Carmen.
"Back in the old days, nobody wanted unions -- except for the workers, of course," he says, telling of his grandmother who carried a scar from a picket line scuffle when she was 14. Union-busting companies had muscle, and the Teamsters merely countered by hiring the muscle of the Mafia, he contends.
True? History may say, but "Teamster Boss" seems only to make the case that corruption soon became a habit and a family tradition, and that Presser was, perhaps, a little less bad than most.