Larry Donner is an author and writing professor who tutors people that want to write books. Larry's life has become a misery when his ex-wife Margaret has published a book he wrote under her name and has gotten rich over it. Owen Lift, one of Larry's students, offers Larry to kill Margaret, and in return Owen, wants Larry to kill his horrible mother. Larry thinks it's a joke, until he learns Owen killed his ex-wife. And Larry has now become the prime suspect. Written by
Owen loves his Mamma...only he'd love her better six feet under in this dark, laugh-out-loud comedy that both stars and is directed by Danny DeVito, with admirable assists from Billy Crystal and Anne Ramsey in the title role.
"Throw Momma From The Train" is a terrific comedy, even if it isn't a great film. It's too shallow in parts, and the ending feels less organic than tacked on. But it's a gut-splitting ride most of the way, with Crystal and DeVito employing great screen chemistry while working their own separate comic takes on the essence of being a struggling writer (DeVito is avid but untalented; Crystal is blocked and bitter).
Crystal's Professor Donner believes his ex-wife stole his book (the unfortunately titled "Hot Fire") and can't write more than the opening line of his next book, which doesn't come easy. He teaches a creative writing class of budding mediocrities, including a middle-aged woman who writes Tom Clancy-type fiction but doesn't know what that thing is the submarine captain speaks through; and an upholstery salesman who wants to write the story of his life. Mr. Pinsky is probably the funniest character for laughs-per-minutes-on-screen, an ascot-wearing weirdo who sees literature as an excuse to write his opus: "100 Girls I'd Like To Pork."
Then there's DeVito's Owen Lift, who calls himself Professor Donner's "star pupil" even though the teacher won't read his work in class. Owen is a somewhat unusual character to star in a movie, a man-child in his late 30s who lives with his overbearing mother, Anne Ramsey, who calls him "lardass" and other endearing sentiments. In any other movie, we'd be asked to feel sorry for Owen, but "Throw Momma From The Train" piles life's cruelties onto this sad sack for laughs and expects us to go along. That's one big reason why this film probably loses a lot of people.
For those of us who enjoy the humor of this character, even identifying with him, and take the rest of what we see here as a lark, it's not as big a stretch to go along with the bigger gambit this comedy takes, asking us to watch in amusement while Owen enlists Professor Donner's help in a plan to kill his mother. Actually, he first goes to Hawaii to kill Donner's hated ex, then tells the professor it's his turn to kill Mrs. Lift, "swapping murders" as seen in Hitchcock's "Strangers On A Train."
As a director, DeVito not only complements his actors' performances with scene-setting that places the accent on dialogue, he makes some bold visual statements, throwing in bits of amusing unreality to keep the audience on its toes (and away from taking things too seriously.)
Also helping matters is writer Stu Silver, who keeps the laughs coming with his quotable patter. "You got rats the size of Oldsmobiles here." "She's not a woman...She's the Terminator." "One little murder and I'm Jack the Ripper." Those are all Crystal's words, but some of the funniest lines, which work only in context but absolutely kill, are DeVito's and Ramsey's. Apparently Silver never wrote another screenplay after this, according to the IMDb, and that's a shame, because he had real talent for it.
The best scene in this movie, when Crystal meets Ramsey, was actually used in its entirety as a theatrical 'coming attraction' presentation, the only time I've seen a movie promoted that way. Owen introduces the professor to his mother as 'Cousin Patty,' and when Momma says he doesn't have a Cousin Patty, panicky Owen loses it. 'You lied to me,' he yells out, slamming the professor's forehead with a pan.
Of course, in reality the professor wouldn't groan out something witty from the floor, but 'Throw Momma From The Train' works effectively at such moments, when playing its Looney Tunes vibe for all its worth. DeVito hasn't disappeared from films, of course, but it's a mystery why he hasn't really followed up on the directorial promise of this movie. Maybe it's because, as 'Throw Momma From The Train's lack of mainstream success shows, his kind of vision isn't to everyone's tastes. That's too bad for those of us who can watch this over and over, and like it.
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