Movies We LoveThrow Momma from the Train (1987)

The night was humid.

Synopsis
Larry is a neurotic writer who hates his ex-wife for stealing his book and the fortune and fame that subsequently followed. Owen is a simpleton momma’s boy who takes Larry’s creative writing class and who hates his momma for being old and curmudgeonly. For separate reasons, neither one of them is able to write a good story: Larry, bitter and distracted, has writer’s block and Owen, simple and naive, just has no concept on how to write well. To help out his student’s pathetic attempt at a murder mystery, Larry offers a simple piece of advice – eliminate the motive – that Owen unfortunately interprets to mean if he murders Larry’s ex-wife, Larry will return the favor by murdering his momma.

Why We Love It

Similar to films like Adaptation and Stranger Than Fiction that would come long afterward, Throw Momma from the Train is a film for writers. I don’t mean to say that this film is anywhere near comparable to those films in prestige or skill, but all three of them share in the qualities of being films that revel in the neuroses of the unique characters who choose to be writers while also including touches of meta that bring upon varying levels of delightful self-awareness. Clearly, Adaptation and Stranger Than Fiction had much stronger narratives with which to work, but the fact that Throw Momma from the Train is a more direct comedy than those others helps with glossing over some of the weaknesses it may have.

First and foremost, screenwriter Stu Silver seems to be proponent of the idea that it’s not where you take things from, but where you take them to because if Throw Momma from the Train is not a comedic re-telling of Strangers on a Train, then at the very least, it was definitely inspired by the Hitchcock classic. Throw Momma, after all, features two relative strangers swapping murders with each other, but it just so happens that one half of the party involved is oblivious and the other half is completely unwilling. What transpires is a comedy where the characters cluelessly stumble through the irreversible consequences of an act that neither understand.

And that comedy, thanks to the fitting performances and subsequent chemistry from both Danny DeVito and Billy Crystal, is memorable and immensely quoteworthy. The combination of the put upon Owen and the on-edge Larry lead to plenty of interactions where the former learns a bit more about how to be a rational grown up and the latter learns a bit more about how to be a sympathetic one. The banter and insults are almost distractingly funny as it’s easy to forget as Larry is flipping out and Owen is bumbling around that Owen has actually crafted quite the air tight scheme to implicate Larry in his ex-wife’s murder should he (as he does) opt to not fulfill his end of the “bargain.”

It becomes clear from watching Owen and Larry that they’re both psychotic to varying degrees, and this is where the film displays a bit more of that self-awareness as Silver paints the ilk of the writer in both a warm and self-deprecating light. In four years, Larry has only written one sentence – “The night was” – and yet carries with him an air of condescension toward his eager yet somewhat misguided creative writing students, like the man whose book is merely a list of women with whom he’d like to have sex or Owen, whose 3-page murder mystery saw half of its 2 characters killed on page 2. As a longtime writer of the TV parody, Soap, I’m sure Silver knew a thing or two about the kind of personalities that get involved in arts & entertainment.

Moment We Fell in Love

Anne Ramsey. She may not be a moment, per se, but as soon as Throw Momma transitions into the household of Owen and Mrs. Lift, every moment featuring Ramsey is hilarious. She’s an old curmudgeon who is paranoid Owen is trying to have “them” take her away, she throws out insults like “lard ass,” “fat boy” and “clumsy poop” like it’s her job and when Owen momentarily believes Larry has died, she dismisses his pain by telling him to “go bury him in the back yard before he stinks up the place.” She’s a pain in the ass, but she’s also got a warm, fuzzy center because it’s clear that she relies on Owen and Owen relies on her. She’s lived a very long life being the primary care-giver for essentially an overgrown child so perhaps she’s entitled to being a little crotchedy.

I’m apparently not the only one who thought she was a highlight as she – a comedy actress – actually received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the 1988 Academy  Awards.

Final Thoughts

Those weaknesses I mentioned earlier? There are plenty. A lot of tension in Throw Momma is manufactured and unnatural and it’s a film that could’ve been well served by an extra 10 pages to help with that. Additionally, I’m not entirely sure the film has a clearly delineated climax to its second act. Still, Throw Momma is a comedy and there is plenty of comedic material to keep you satisfied. Nowadays, most people identify Danny DeVito with the crass, edgy humor of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” but the guy has been involved with so many different kinds of comedy over the last 4 decades that he handles the co-starring and directing duties of Throw Momma with quiet efficiency.

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