Throw Momma from the Train

The question everyone must be asking: Does Throw Momma from the Train live up to its title? If there’s been a more wackily inspired film title in recent years, I don’t know about it. (Surf Nazis Must Die doesn’t count, because it hasn’t played here yet.)

As it turns out, Throw Momma does tap into the healthy black humor suggested by its moniker. It’s a solid sick comedy, with nearly as many laughs as another movie celebrating modes of travel, Planes, Trains & Automobiles.

Throw Momma is a comic crisscross of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Larry (Billy Crystal) is an English teacher with a massive writer’s block. He can’t complete the sentence, “The night was…”—and that’s just the first line of his novel. The source of his block is his loathing for his ex-wife (Kate Mulgrew); she’s stolen a manuscript from him and turned it into a bestseller under her name.

Owen (Danny DeVito) is a long-suffering dimwit who’s taking Larry’s continuing education creative-writing class. Owen lives with his Momma (Anne Ramsey), a scabrous, monstrous hag who treats him as a slave, and an incompetent one at that. Owen fantasizes about ways of knocking the old lady off.

Somehow Owen gets it into his head that, like the strangers in Strangers on a Train, he and Larry should switch murders and give each other an alibi. So he goes to Hawaii, where Larry’s wife lives, and gets her on a boat in the middle of the Pacific. When she leans over the side to retrieve an earring, well…splash.

When Owen comes home, he expects Larry to return the favor. Larry’s revolted, but Owen is sure that Momma’s natural charms will do the trick: “Just meet her. Maybe she’d be somebody you’d like to kill.”

The dark farce of Stu Silver’s script continues in this vein, and much of it is very funny. DeVito and Crystal work well together, under DeVito’s direction (his first time in feature work). Visually, DeVito gives the movie a flamboyant Hitchcockian look that fits the nutty tone of the material.

But there’s something else about DeVito’s direction that really makes the film go. He doesn’t just set up the guffaws; he also catches smaller bits of humor, such as the student at writing school who’s compiling an absurd list of the 100 women he’d like to make love to (Kathleen Turner, the girl in the taco commercials, etc.). “This isn’t literature,” the teacher says. “It’s a coffee-table book,” the students sniffs.

Throw Momma falters only near its end, when it becomes clear that nobody knows exactly what to do with Momma; the movie gets cold feet when it comes to the point of actually throwing her from the train. Funny as it is, this movie can’t quite fulfill its title after all.

First published in the Herald, December 1987

At the time I would’ve guessed that Throw Momma from the Train might have had a higher profile over time; not a classic, that is, but a fondly-remembered film along the lines of, come to think of it, Planes, Trains & Automobiles. It doesn’t seem to have lasted that way. Beyond that, you know Surf Nazis Must Die is a terrible movie, as I later found out.

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