An upcoming Lions Gate release that premiered Saturday at the Santa Barbara (Calif.) International Film Festival, "Steal" employs all of the tricks of biographical films and documentaries in a clumsy ploy to maintain a steady flow of information and entertainment early, then sustain tension during Hoffman's 1970s nightmare as a fallen hero in hiding and suffering from manic depression.
With Vincent D'Onofrio as Abbie and Janeane Garofalo as Anita Hoffman, "Steal" boasts freaky, often-fun performances, and one gets a big second-hand puff of the drug-holiday lives of Hoffman and comrades like Jerry Rubin (Kevin Corrigan). Sex, revolution, marijuana, music: We've been there a few times, but "Steal" also sets out to show what happens when merry pranksters transform into dangerous "enemies of the state."
Based on Abbie and Anita's Hoffman's book "To America With Love: Letters From the Underground" and Marty Jezer's "Abbie Hoffman American Rebel", "Steal" is screenwritten by Bruce Graham and Bob Ward, with cooperation from the late Anita Hoffman and input from several of the people portrayed, including Stew Albert (Donal Logue), Hoffman's lawyer Gerry Lefcourt (Kevin Pollak) and Tom Hayden (played by his real-life son Troy Garity).
Although it contains a few successful dramatic and intimate scenes -- with D'Onofrio and Garofalo well-matched and mostly believable in period garb -- "Steal" plays like an extended music video, with a complex plot incorporating many flashbacks and lots of archival footage and vintage music. Part history lesson, part "Citizen Yippie", the film is too schizoid in its agenda. But it has something to say to budding malcontents, who might be surprised at how brilliant and brave Hoffman was at staging demonstrations and symbolic acts.
When not reminding one of overblown biopics like "Up Close and Personal", prolific television and film director Robert Greenwald's "Steal" works hard to rise above its Oliver Stone Lite approach. By using multiple film stocks and employing voice-overs (mostly random samplings of FBI misdeeds) and even unnecessary graphics, Greenwald tries to push all of the obvious buttons, down to cliched courtroom speeches and scenes of Hoffman's tough times underground.
After a suspicious drug bust and his deliberate disappearance, during which he is forced to sever contact with Anita -- who continues to be harassed by the FBI's secret operations targeting radicals -- Hoffman is lucky to find another stick-by-her-freak type in Johanna Lawrenson (Jeanne Tripplehorn). But now he is estranged from his son America, and under an assumed name living with Lawrenson he suffers from severe mood swings. The film starts with a bearded, distraught Hoffman in 1977 contacting journalist David Glenn Alan Van Sprang), who helps start the process by which the lead (a k a Barry Freed) emerges to face a short prison sentence and overall redemption.
It's one hell of a story, but at nearly two hours -- and with an ultimately unwieldy structure that breezes by such historic events as the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the Chicago Seven trial -- D'Onofrio's wide-ranging performance is not enough, nor Garofalo's solid contributions, to prevent the manipulative filmmaking from undermining the experience to any irritating degree.
STEAL THIS MOVIE!
Lions Gate Releasing
A Greenlight production in association with Ardent Films
Credits: Director: Robert Greenwald; Screenwriters: Bruce Graham, Bob Ward; Producers: Jacobus Rose, Robert Greenwald; Executive producers: Jon Avnet, Vincent D'Onofrio, Ken Christmas; Director of photography: Denis Lenoir; Production designers: Richard Paris, Linda Del Rosario; Editor: Kimberly Ray; Music: Mader; Casting: Jeanne McCarthy. Cast: Abbie Hoffman: Vincent D'Onofrio; Anita Hoffman: Janeane Garofalo; Johanna Lawrenson: Jeanne Tripplehorn; Gerry Lefcourt: Kevin Pollak; Stew Albert: Donal Logue; Jerry Rubin: Kevin Corrigan; Tom Hayden: Troy Garity. No MPAA rating. Color/stereo. Running time -- 112 minutes.