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Looking Back: Throw Momma From the Train (1987)

As I sit here and begin to shape a retrospective article on Danny DeVito’s “Throw Mamma From the Train,” I can’t help but want to write:

The night was….the night was….the night was…the night…the night was…

This is also the wonderful opening scene that starts off Devito’s directorial debut (not counting his made for cable “The Rating’s Game” or his televised “Amazing Stories” episode, “The Wedding Ring,” both promising beginnings). We push in on Billy Crystal as Larry, a failed writer struggling to begin his new novel and failing to craft the perfect opening sentence. As the opening credits unspool, Larry drives himself mad trying to finish the sentence “The night was…” and can’t come up with anything. A sudden burst of procrastination hits, Larry turns on the TV and we see the reason behind his writer’s block: Larry’s ex-wife Margaret (played by Kate Mulgrew) is making a triumphant appearance on Oprah (yes, Miss Winfrey appears as herself, back in the days when she was pitted against Donahue and Geraldo).

According to Larry’s angry, expletive-laden commentary, we learn that Margaret stole his first book, cheated on him, ran off with someone else and is now a famous author (I’m not sure if that’s the correct order of events but never mind). This sense of loss torments Larry daily, as he half heartedly teaches a writing class and has a prickly relationship with another teacher (played by Kim Greist). With Larry prone to sudden outbursts towards Margaret at any given moment, he catches the attention of an especially talent-challenged student, Owen (played by DeVito). Larry means to inspire Owen on the mechanics of plot construction and assigns him a viewing of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train.” Instead of flavoring Owen’s creative juices, the film’s plot of a “criss-cross” murder inspires Owen to kill Margaret. As a thank you, Owen fully expects Larry to murder his overbearing Mamma (played by Anne Ramsey, in an Oscar nominated performance).

DeVito’s “Throw Mamma From the Train” and “The War of the Roses” are impressive for their visual panache, the clarity of the tone and performances and for how truly dark they are. This isn’t black comedy as satire or a glib detachment from the material. If anything, DeVito is using comedy to bring us into the damaged psyches of his unreliable protagonists. Rather than merely suggest a Hitchcock influence, Hitchcock’s film is cleverly made a part of the plot and inspires Owen outright. It says much about the character, as well as DeVito funneling influences through his directorial gaze.

DeVito has essentially cast himself as Norman Bates and it works. He’s believably child-like but also genuinely creepy. It’s an excellent performance that begins as darkly comedic but becomes increasingly sinister and discomforting. Note the queasy suspense where Owen humors two policemen and ponders whether to give up Larry’s hiding space; it’s a funny scene but it says much about how faulty Owen’s wiring truly is.

This is Crystal coming off of “Running Scared” and his cameo in “The Princess Bride” but before his breakthrough in “When Harry Met Sally…” and “City Slickers.” While Crystal occasionally falls back on his stand-up persona, he gives an effective, distinctly edgy performance. He has a great line where he whines, “One little murder and suddenly I’m Jack the Ripper!” Ramsey’s performance is, to put it simply, so awesome, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else making the character so impactful. Mamma is a bully and terrifying but also sweet and as child-like as Owen. Ramsey played a similar role in “The Goonies” and makes this overbearing figure surprisingly layered and fascinating. Her scenes with DeVito are funny but never shy from the sadness and loneliness so prevalent in their characters. The much noted “coin collection” scene is brilliant, not only for how well its written but what it says so directly about Owen.

Barry Sonnenfeld’s cinematography captures both the shaky, immature mindset of Owen and also Larry’s dull, staid existence. Eventually, the two visual approaches merge and DeVito’s film becomes like a live-action Looney Tunes, simmered with a Charles Addams sensibility. There’s a stunning shot (one of many) of a glass falling, where the camera follows it as it drops through the air- it’s a shot right out of “After Hours,” as Martin Scorsese did the same trick with a set of keys. Sonnenfeld’s exhilarating work (visible the same year in his filming of “Raising Arizona”) is matched by David Newman’s thrilling score.

While I’d love to deem DeVito’s film a masterpiece, it falls short in a few areas. A couple of transitions reveal possible missing scenes. For example, there’s a car crash that suddenly cuts to Owen’s house- we never know what happened in between. Also, the most crucial flaw- the ending is a crock. I can forgive the sentimental conclusion if we’re meant to believe it’s all a dream that Larry has after being pushed off a train. As it stands, the wrap up moments are too upbeat and tonally defy everything that came before them.

I suppose it’s fitting that a movie about writers ends with a deus ex machina or a compromised tag for an otherwise fittingly macabre tale. DeVito’s film does have the logic and unguarded chutzpah of an especially wily crime novel. Larry’s advice as a teacher has always applied to me, as well as connoisseurs of films as winningly cracked as this one: “A Writer Writes, Always.”

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