In the history of cinema, has there ever been a more unlikely star and leading man than Danny DeVito? Working within an industry that favors the beautiful, bronzed, and statuesque—a cookie-cutter typecasting machine to be sure—DeVito has managed to carve out a 40 year career between screens both small and large, a rather extraordinary accomplishment given the genetics he inherited. Sporting a bowling ball frame, balding since the ’70s, and barely registering in at 5 feet in height, the actor-producer-director triple threat has defied the odds and created a diverse filmography, becoming a bona fide movie star in the process. His films have rung up more than $1.7 million in U.S. box-office receipts, his presence was and is invaluable in two long-running TV shows (Taxi and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), and won an Academy Award for his producing efforts. As if this wasn’t enough, and the deck wasn’t already stacked against him, DeVito brings to the table a rather unique, bent, and jet-black comedic sensibilities to several of his most memorable characters; but as a director, he really lets this version of his personality come through, fully embracing his bizarre and often morbid take on life, often times to mixed results. But when DeVito is on, his comedic instincts and timing hit satiric heights typically reserved for Kubrick or the Coen Brothers. Throw Momma from the Train, while not as dark as his later effort Death to Smoochy, is certainly a more well-rounded effort—one that displays a heart and a layer of sweetness despite its caustic premise, serving to balance the proceedings and provide the audience with relatable central characters, allowing them to be in on the joke from the opening moments of the film.
The film follows two struggling screenwriters, one of which, novelist Larry Donner (Billy Crystal), has had some success in the past, but is now rendered impotent—in a writing sense—due to his ex-wife stealing his one great book idea for herself and riding it to fame and wealth. To make ends meet, he decides to take on a teaching gig at a local community college where he meets Owen (Danny DeVito), a timid man who still lives with his abusive and insolent mother (Anne Ramsey). Owen hopes to learn valuable writing skills in Larry’s class; it remains his last creative outlet and a means of escape from the shrill harpy living just one room over. Soon Owen’s rage begins to spill onto the page, he can’t help it, he wants his mom dead, sooner rather than later; she finally pushed him too far. After seeing Strangers on a Train, Owen becomes obsessed with the idea of each man eliminating the other’s problem; he will take out Larry’s ex-wife, and Larry in turn can silence his mother, that way the crimes will seem random—“Crisscross, Larry! Crisscross!”—and the authorities will be unable to connect the threads, allowing both men to live their lives in peace. Larry doesn’t think Owen is serious, he may be weird—maybe even a little crazy—but not capable of murder. However, it turns out that Owen is more determined than Larry previously assessed, and shows back up at his door after tracking down his ex-wife on a cruise ship in Hawaii, saying he now owes him; its time for Larry to eliminate his mom. If he doesn’t come through on the pact that Owen believes Larry to have made, he will have no choice but to report to the police that he believes Larry was responsible. Lacking an alibi, Larry is painted into a corner, and with Owen’s help begins to plan the murder of an old woman. All of which is played for comic effect, of course.
DeVito turns in a performance that is diabolical, and yet, somehow retains a childlike sensibility, which helps to carry the character through the nastier bits of business, emerging unscathed when it comes to crowd reactions. His comic timing is on prominent display; it takes on a slow, steady, deliberate way of building up to his character’s ridiculous behavioral outbursts, maximizing the tension felt by viewers, and the catharsis of laughter that comes along with it. How he was able to create a character that was on the verge of bubbling over with resentment and poison all the while managing to maintain a certain level of innocence has always been a mystery to me; a masterful performance, comedic or otherwise is given here, and it’s a shame that, for the most part, its been lost in the ether of film history. Despite the odd pairing and varying styles between the two, DeVito also exhibits wonderful chemistry with Billy Crystal—an actor that I typical don’t care for—developing a rather odd rapport that works wonders in the framework of the film.
The owner of the showiest role and generating the largest of laughs is Anne Ramsey as Momma. A character actor primarily known for her role as Mama Fratelli in Richard Donner’s The Goonies, her performance here won her an Oscar nomination, a rarity for a performance with a comedic slant. The slurred speech that would help enhance the evilness and hilarity associated with her character was the direct result of surgery to treat the esophageal cancer (she had part of her jaw and tongue removed) that would forever silence her in 1988. Ramsey does a bang-up job of creating a true monster of a woman, enabling DeVito to go “full-tilt” in his performance and allowing Crystal to ratchet up the hysterics to a level that seems appropriate but never overbearing, a problematic balancing act he would encounter in several of his other film roles but nails here with minimal fuss.
With Throw Momma from the Train, DeVito would not only make a twisted, camp classic, but allow his own personality to shine through, creating a unique comic vision drenched in darkness. The actor/director would continue to provide audiences with his own brand of comedy throughout the years, but with the exception of Sunny’sFrank Reynolds, he wouldn’t be able to find that sweet spot again, the perfect blend of the morbid and absurd that makes Owen Lift such a vivid creation.