Throw Momma from the Train (1987)

19 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Not many movies inspired by other movies have the nerve to name their sources on screen, let alone have a character watch the source in a movie theater. But Danny DeVito obviously knows that and gives his character a scene in “Throw Momma from the Train”—a film that is sort of a comedic version of the Hitchcock film “Strangers on a Train”—in which he goes to a movie theater, sees that movie, and it inspires him to set up the plot.

“Strangers on a Train” was about two strangers who meet on a train and one proposes a plot to commit a murder for each other. In “Throw Momma from the Train,” there are also two strangers who have people they wish were dead. Writer Larry Donner (Billy Crystal) feels anger for his wife, who has stolen his book and published it with her name. Owen Lift (DeVito), who is somewhat of a pathetic schlub, lives with his overbearing mother, who is sort of a cross between Quasimodo and the Wicked Witch of the West. He dreams of killing her, but grows spineless at every attempt.

Owen is a student in Larry’s creative writing class. When he asks Larry what he can do to improve on his writing, he tells Owen to go see an Alfred Hitchcock film for inspiration. One day, at lunch, Larry’s wife is mentioned to Larry and he responds by exclaiming, “I wish she was dead!”

Owen goes to see “Strangers on a Train,” he gets the idea of the movie, and believes that the choice of the film was a message from Larry. Larry only says he wants his wife dead, but Owen takes him seriously. He supposedly (the murder is off-screen) kills Larry’s wife and expects Larry to “return the favor” and kill his mother.

And who could blame Owen for wanting his mother dead? Momma is a monster and Larry knows that too—he has a line later in the film, “She’s not a woman—she’s the Terminator.” Anne Ramsey goes all out with this performance, and she is more than game.

DeVito is the star of this movie. He delivers a performance of a man who really needs help and we start to care for the guy. He’s a good director too—he frames certain shots in which he almost looks like a small boy; he has a tendency to make the everyday world seem somewhat surreal; and he gets the material. The best scene in the film is a sweet one—it’s a scene in which he shows Crystal his coin collection. Those aren’t coins that are really worth anything but they remind him of places his dad used to take him. That’s a very good scene, with a real amount of whimsy put to it.

There are also a couple of big laughs in this movie—one of them involves Crystal at the river trying to find an opening line for his book. And the other involves DeVito and Crystal in DeVito’s house—they’re having breakfast in the kitchen, Crystal meets Momma, and without giving too much away, there’s a frying pan involved, and the scene delivers possibly the funniest moment in the movie.

Admittedly, the whole murder situation is a little uneven. But with a few sweet scenes, some good laughs, and good performances by DeVito, Crystal, and Ramsey, this is an enjoyable, entertaining comedy.

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