Saturday, February 18, 2017

Throw Momma From the Train

So I got around to watching Throw Momma From the Train again for the first time in quite a few years, having DVRed it some months back. It's available on DVD and Blu-Ray, and not overly expensive, so I'm OK doing a full-length post on it.

Billy Crystal stars as Larry Donner, a writer with a serious case of writer's block. He can't even figure out the right adjective to use to describe the night in the opening sentence of his story. (Not dark and/or stormy, I presume.) His life is a mess in a bunch of other ways. He's a divorcé, and his ex-wife (Kate Mulgrew) authored an extremely successful book that Larry insists was his idea. Meanwhile, he teaches creative writing a bunch of inept misfits a the local college, and is trying to start a romance with anthropology professor Beth (Kim Greist).

Owen (Danny DeVito) is one of Larry's students. He's a man-child, living with his mother "Momma" (Anne Ramsey). She's a handful, in need of quite a bit of attention and constantly hectoring Owen when he doesn't give him that attention. In fact, Momma is so bad that Owen has fantasies about killing her. But he could never bring himself to actually do the deed. Meanwhile, he's also perpetually pestering Larry to read and critique his terrible stories, not giving Larry a moment's peace.

And then, one day, Owen overhears Larry talking to Beth, talking about his ex-wife and how he wishes she were dead. Owen talks to Larry, and learns that neither of them could really kill somebody (and this is also why Owen's mystery stories don't work) because both of them have too obvious a motive. Figure out a way to obscure the motive, and come up with a plausible alibi, and you've got your murder mystery. Owen, for his part, goes off and sees a revival theater's showing of Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. Well, if you know the plot of that one, you'll already know what idea Owen is going to get: Owen could kill Larry's ex-wife for him, and in exchange Larry can kill Momma.

Naturally that's utter nonsense and wouldn't work in real life. But Owen isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, and goes off to Hawaii where Larry's ex-wife is now living. He's on a boat to Maui with her, and sees her leaning over a railing to retrieve an earring, giving Owen the perfect opportunity to.... (I was reminded here of Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black here; that movie just happens to be Truffaut's homage to Hitchcock.) The next morning, Owen calls and says he's killed Larry's ex-wife, and he'll introduce Larry to Momma so Larry can fulfill his part of the bargain. Not that Larry realized he had entered into any bargain.

Meanwhile, suspicion for the ex-wife's disappearance and presumed death falls on Larry, so he has to get away, and winds up spending time at Owen's house, which is where he meets Momma. Larry could never kill anybody, but then he'd never met Momma before.

There's a lot to like about Throw Momma from the Train. This starts with the characters, who are reasonably well-drawn. Billy Crystal has no difficulty with his writer/professor, while Danny DeVito is also well-suited to playing Owen; both do a fine job. Kate Mulgrew's role is smaller, but watching her you can understand why Larry hates his ex-wife so much. Larry's students other than Owen are mostly stock characters, but those characters are there in clear supporting roles and they all fit their parts just fine, as does Branford Marsalis as Larry's neighbor. Stealing the show is Anne Ramsey as Momma. She's vicious, nasty, and non-stop at it, making it easy for even somebody with the patience of a saint to get fed up with her and wishing her dead. Ramsey was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar for this, and richly deserves the nomination.

Everybody's helped by a well-written story. This is a black comedy, and boy are there a lot of laughs here. If there are any weakneses, it's a few of the scenes between Larry and Beth. I'm not certain if it's because of Kim Greist's performance, or because of the way the character is written. But these spots don't bring the movie down very much.

The next time Throw Momma From the Train comes up on TV, do yourself a favor and watch it.

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