"We got 'em!" said Judge Clark Douglas. "Yeah!" said Dave.
Owen asked his friend, Larry, for a small favor…
Danny DeVito's dark comedy Throw Momma From the Train is generally regarded as one of the director's finest efforts. It sports a ferociously entertaining, Oscar-nominated performance from Anne Ramsey, gives DeVito one of his more distinctive acting roles and functions as a clever updating of Alfred Hitchcock's suspense classic Strangers on a Train. Still, I must confess this beloved comedy is starting to feel a little dusty more than two decades after its initial release.
The movie stars Billy Crystal (City Slickers) as Larry, a very Billy Crystal-like writing teacher who is still fuming over the fact that his ex-wife stole his manuscript, published it under her own name and became fabulously wealthy in the process. "I hate her! I wish she was dead!" he yells in the school cafeteria one day. This little outburst is overheard by Owen (Danny DeVito, Romancing the Stone), one of Larry's least-talented and most ambitious students.
Owen's domestic life is pretty miserable: he's forced to live with his cruel, overbearing mother (Anne Ramsey, The Goonies) and often fantasizes about killing her. However, he just can't work up the nerve to off his own momma. Through a series of verbal misunderstandings and coincidences, Owen convinces himself that Larry wants to participate in a Strangers on a Train-style trade-off: if Owen kills Larry's ex-wife, then Larry will kill Owen's mother. Larry is understandably shocked when he finally discovers what Owen is up to, but by that time it's too late. Larry's ex has been shoved off a cruise ship, and now Owen expects him to return the favor.
Watching this Blu-ray release was my third viewing of Throw Momma From the Train, and at this point I'm not sure if there's going to be a fourth. As the years have passed, DeVito's directorial debut has begun to show serious signs of wear and tear. Though Crystal's performance is more restrained than many of his turns during the prime of his career, there are too many moments in which the movie allows him to indulge his usual comic shtick. Crystal is at his funniest when the laughs develop organically out of the scenario DeVito presents (consider his deadpan reaction to Ramsey's literary suggestion on the train). When he's playing to the audience rather than his co-stars, his performance becomes slightly distracting and pulls us out of the movie (observe the way his advice to his less-than-talented students runs closer to a stand-up routine than a legitimate reaction to the terrible work he's critiquing).
The inconsistent nature of Crystal's generally entertaining performance isn't a major complaint, but it is one of many areas in which Throw Momma From the Train falls apart when placed under scrutiny. Another is the coincidence-driven plotting, which is as silly as anything in a vintage screwball comedy but nowhere near as elegant. Far too much of the plot is dependent upon unlikely misunderstandings and inconsistent characterization. The murderous instincts of both Owen and Larry come and go at a fairly frantic pace; the characters aren't being cleverly foiled ala The Ladykillers but merely pulling back due to a change of conscience. This could have been transformed into something immensely entertaining in its own right, but Crystal and DeVito don't really pull off the sort of challenging physical comedy that would have required.
Generally, I enjoy DeVito's work behind the camera, as his penchant for dark comedy is usually good for at least a few chuckles (I even like the much-maligned Death to Smoochy). However, his finest work remains War of the Roses, as it's the only one of his dark comedies which is really willing to follow its characters darker impulses to their logical conclusions. In Throw Momma From the Train, he tends to pull back at every possible opportunity, never really allowing the material to become truly squirm-inducing. For all its efforts to be edgy, the movie ultimately delivers something closer to quirky cuteness than fearless ambition. The ending—much like the endings of Death to Smoochy and Duplex—is fundamentally a cop-out; a betrayal of the fascinatingly sinister ideas which preceded it.
All of that being said, there's still some fun to be had in Throw Momma From the Train. The movie springs to life whenever Ramsey is onscreen, and her endless insults frequently veer into delightfully inexplicable territory (such as when she hurls a racial slur at Crystal, much to his confusion). There's never been another character quite like Owen's Momma, and the movie is worth checking out at least once to witness her distinctive performance. There's also the pleasure of DeVito's strangely endearing work as Owen (whose fusion of childish naiveté and homicidal rage sparks numerous moments of fine comedy), not to mention Crystal's laudable effort to deliver his quippy dialogue in as naturalistic a manner as he can manage (he doesn't always succeed, but he's really acting here). There's also the fun score by David Newman, which frequently feels like the music Bernard Herrmann never wrote for Strangers on a Train. Firmly planting the film in 1987: prominently-credited "special appearances" by Oprah Winfrey (whose appearance is barely large enough to be called a cameo) and Rob Reiner (in a brief, silly turn as Larry's impatient publisher).
Throw Momma From the Train (Blu-ray) is another lazy release from the folks at MGM. Not much effort has been putting into cleaning up the film, but it's a natural HD transfer without any indication of needless digital tampering. Detail is strong throughout its 1.85:1/1080p high definition widescreen image, though there's occasionally some dirt, scratches, flecks and other print damage which turns up on occasion. Black levels are fine if unremarkable. The DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track is similarly competent, offering clean dialogue and a sturdy mix which never goes out of its way to really impress. Supplements are on the thin side: a handful of brief featurettes ("Crafting a Dark Comedy," "The Night Was…" and "Why Do You Hate Your Mother?"), some deleted scenes and a trailer.
I certainly don't dislike Throw Momma From the Train, but it's becoming harder and harder to recall just why this was such a blast once upon a time. After the initial fun of the concept and Ramsey's performance wears off, you're left with a comedy which falls short of many of its ambitions. The Blu-ray release doesn't really merit an upgrade.
Not guilty, I suppose.
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