Synopsis: Long-suffering momma’s boy Owen (DeVito) has a mother (Ramsey) who’s a cross between Quasimodo and the Wicked Witch. Owen’s friend Larry (Crystal) has female problems of his own: an ex-wife who stole his novel and made it a bestseller. Can these hapless males help “eliminate” each other’s problems? Get ready for some of the funniest foul play on film when DeVito, Crystal and Ramsey put this laugh-a-minute comedy on track!
eyelights: the main cast’s performances. the black humour. DeVito’s deft direction.
eyesores: the implausibility of the last act.
“Well just meet her. Maybe she’ll be somebody you’d LIKE to kill.”
‘Throw Momma From the Train’ is the sophomore directorial effort by Danny DeVito. Starring Billy Crystal as well as DeVito himself, it was the surprise hit of 1987, raking in nearly 60 million dollars on a 14 million dollar budget – some serious money at the time.
I still remember the fuss when it came out; people wouldn’t stop talking about Anne Ramsey, who played the picture’s antagonist – an elderly woman so unpleasant that everyone who meets her wants to kill her – including her doting but abused son, Owen (DeVito).
I didn’t see it in cinemas at the time, but I saw it 2-3 times through the years – each time being disappointed. I didn’t find it funny; it felt dark and oppressive to me. But I kept giving it a chance because of Crystal and DeVito, who have made some of my favourite films ever.
This time, I finally got it.
Most of the humour is in the cartoonish treatment by DeVito, who uses the camera for comic effect, and in the dialogues, which overflow with sarcasm, irony and a bevy of absurdist humour. There’s also a fair bit of situational humour, with DeVito’s character being the catalyst.
‘Throw Momma from the Train’ is the story of Larry (Crystal), a writer whose debut novel has been pilfered by his ex-wife; she’s since published it under her name and reaped the glory. Currently suffering from writer’s block, he despise her for this ultimate betrayal.
By day, he teaches writing to a bunch of inept adult student, some of whom are passionate about their subjects but utterly lacking in sophistication or even basic understanding (a hilarious opening scene highlights their ineptitude – and a poor overdub of “f**k” with “pork”).
One of those student is Owen.
Owen dreams of becoming a writer someday and he desperately wants Larry to read his story to give him pointers. Larry simply ignores him, giving his simpleton student something to obsess over. And so he shows up everywhere, even at home, virtually stalking him.
One day, Larry relents and has a sit-down with Owen, explaining to him the essence of crime stories (something the beleaguered student is attempting to write), including motive, and suggests that he watch some Alfred Hitchcock films as reference.
Unfortunately, Owen goes to see ‘Strangers on a Train’ and, after having heard Larry publicly wish his ex-wife dead, takes away the message that they should swap murders to avoid getting caught. So he decides to go to Hawaii to kill off Larry’s ex.
Upon his return, he asks Larry to return the favour: to kill his momma for him. As much as Owen fantasizes about killing her, and comes close to doing it, he’s unable to follow through with it. But Larry is the primary suspect for his ex’s murder. He’s on the run
To avoid being turned in, he may have no choice but to agree to Owen’s terms.
The whole set-up is perfect. I like that Owen is portrayed as a stalker, but that he has other things in mind (what little there is of it). He’s just a simpleton who doesn’t know any better, but it’s framed in such a way that we don’t really know for sure until later.
There’s this terrific moment that illustrates both his dimwittedness and his latent psychopathy when he finds Larry’s ex making out with the pool boy: he decides to go make himself a sandwich, all the while leaving his taxi waiting for the return trip.
He’s patiently bidding his time until he can commit murder.
‘Throw Momma from the Train’ excels because of the skill of everyone involved, but its cast deserves a particular mention:
- Danny DeVito has always been good at playing edgier characters and simpletons. Here he does both admirably well. He creeps us out but also make us laugh. He’s annoying but also sympathetic. And I don’t think anyone could have played it better.
- Billy Crystal is Billy Crystal; his persona isn’t very different from the one he takes on in other films. But he’s excellent here: he’s sharp and witty, he has anger fits, but makes us feel for him, relate to him. This is Crystal in one of his best “every man” performances.
- Anne Ramsey plays momma out to be a troll. She is vicious, grating and a disgusting human being. She plays on her son’s weak self-esteem to keep him tethered, but she is horrible to him. Ramsey makes a caricature of her, but remains believable enough.
The weak point of the picture is the last act, which becomes slightly unlikely. Why didn’t Larry go to the cops? Why was he totally incoherent with Beth? Why would he bring Owen along on the train with him? And, to make matters worse, bring momma as well?
It doesn’t make sense, and it’s painfully obvious that these are merely contrivances to move the story along. To me, that is the worst type of comedy, so I’m glad there’s only few instances of it and that the first part is so darned good; the picture barely loses its luster.
After all these years, I finally understand why ‘Throw Momma from the Train’ was the hit it was. It’s surprising that it was such a monstrous hit, dark and twisted as it is, but it obviously struck a chord with people. Everyone has a loved one they’d want to kill, I guess.
Maybe they should go watch a Hitchcock film.
So long as they leave me out of it.
Date of viewing: March 29, 2015