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Non-Review Review: Throw Momma From the Train

Throw Momma From the Train feels like something of a dry run for Danny DeVito. The actor had previously directed a cable television movie, The Ratings Game, but Throw Momma From the Train represented his theatrical directorial début. While not nearly as effective as his follow-up, the classic War of the Roses, Throw Momma From the Train sustains itself with an interesting premise and two charming lead performances that help cover for a script that isn’t anywhere near as darkly comic as it would like to think that it is.

Snatching DeVito from the jaws of victory...

Snatching DeVito from the jaws of victory…

The premise is simple. After his creative writing teacher convinces him to check out a Hitchcock film in order to better understand how to construct a murder mystery, Owen sees Strangers on a Train. Rather than offering a crash course in how to tell a story, the movie offers Owen an inventive solution to the biggest problem in his life: his domineering, overbearing mother. Discovering that his professor, Larry, has his own difficulties with his ex-wife, Owen comes up with an almost-foolproof charm, heavily inspired by Hitchcock. After all, if Hitchcock can’t teach how to tell a great story, he can at least tell you how to kill somebody.

Owen decides that he and Larry should, emulating Strangers on a Train, swap murder victims. That way, they – as Larry keeps stressing about murder mystery writing – “eliminate the motive. There is just one slight problem here. Larry is not a psychopath, so his entire life is turned upside down when Owen wakes him with the news that Owen fulfilled his side of this imaginary bargain. As a result, Larry finds himself on the run, under investigation for his ex-wife’s disappearance and also owing Owen the murder of his domineering mother.

On the write track...

On the write track…

The set-up is pretty black. This is, after all, a comedy about the murder of two women who find themselves living in the shadows of those domineering female presences. Owen still shares a house with his paranoid mother, who is constantly convinced that he is trying to send her away. Larry watched his ex-wife steal his book and release to massive critical and commercial success. The movie hinges on us at least accepting Owen as a borderline psychotic, one capable of killing to get what he wants.

The biggest problem with Throw Momma From the Train is that it never quite commits to that rather dark train of thought. It sets up an exceedingly cynical premise, and then spends a significant portion of its runtime edging away from that. That’s not a fatal flaw. In a surreal way, Throw Momma From the Train ends up an almost uplifting and charming comedy of errors. Larry even gets to offer a nice life-affirming moral at the end of his adventure.

The film doesn't quite follow its own train of thought...

The film doesn’t quite follow its own train of thought…

Indeed, taken as a whole, Throw Momma From the Train is a surprisingly sweet little film, given the subject matter. That said, it just feels strange that the movie starts with a very dark comedic premise and then gets progressively lighter. Transitioning between the two extremes leads to a bit of weird tonal shift, but Billy Crystal and Danny DeVito do their best to compensate for the film’s occasionally schizoid approach to comedy.

Indeed, the film’s central appeal rests with DeVito and Crystal. Crystal is playing that sort of put-upon character that he played a lot during the eighties, the cynical complainer who manages to be both bitter and hilarious at the same time. This isn’t Crystal’s best work, but there’s a charm to it. DeVito has the showier role, but the tougher job. He has to keep Owen endearing to the audience, while also suggesting that the man is a psychopath who is capable of murder.

Pennies from heaven...

Pennies from heaven…

Like the script itself, Owen’s characterisation is a little bi-polar. It’s tough to know exactly how shrewd the little guy is from scene to scene. At one point he’s remarking how the bushes beating against the windshield as the car spins out of control remind him of The Flintstones’ carwash.” Later, he cannily blackmails Larry when the police stop by his house. DeVito handles these transitions relatively well, and does an excellent job tying the character together.

At the same time, however, it feels like the rest of the cast get the short shift. Kate Mulgrew barely registers as Larry’s ex-wife, who has no real characteristics beyond being rude and evil. Kim Griest is drawn into the film to play Larry’s barely-developed attractive girlfriend. It probably doesn’t help that Griest is one of the weakest comedic actresses of the eighties, but the script doesn’t give her anything to do except look pretty as Larry gets deeper and deeper over his head.

The gloves are on...

The gloves are on…

Scripts about writing always run the risk of being self-indulgent. After all, nobody knows how hard it is to writer better than writers. So, when Throw Momma From the Train features a large number of gags about bad writing, it’s appropriate to feel a little nervous. To be fair, some of these jokes land quite well. I love Billy Crystal’s near-breakdown while trying to close the first sentence of his novel (“the night was…”), a scene made better by the subsequent revelation that he has been working on that book for almost four years. On the other hand, some of the gags in Larry’s creative writing class feel a little tired and a little cliché.

Throw Momma From the Train isn’t quite a classic of eighties comedy. It’s an entertaining, charming and diverting little film, but there’s a sense that the script lacks follow-through. The two leads do an excellent job keeping it all together, and this is good experience for DeVito’s future work, but Throw Momma From the Train never gather quite enough momentum.

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