Few actors can make depravity as fun as Danny DeVito. It’s the type of character DeVito has played for much of his career whether he’s playing a sleaze-loving bar owner in “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” or a streetwise criminal in “Twins.” DeVito disappears so thoroughly into these characters that it’s easy to forget his reputation off-camera as charming and kind — so much so that his hometown of Asbury Park, New Jersey has declared his birthday a holiday. It’s always a welcome change of pace when he embraces a different type of character, such as in his 1987 directorial effort “Throw Momma from the Train.” Sure, DeVito’s character is a a man obsessed with murder, but he’s a nice guy! This balancing act between the grim intentions of the characters and the movie’s comedic approach sets it apart from more self-serious crime capers and makes it a must-watch film.
“Throw Momma from the Train” is the story of an unlikely pair of men drawn together by murder. Billy Crystal plays Larry Donner, a novelist with a bad case of writer’s block and a grudge. His ex-wife, Margaret (“Star Trek: Voyager” alum Kate Mulgrew) enjoys a fortune and critical acclaim by taking credit for a manuscript that Larry wrote while Larry finds himself teaching a writing course at the local community college to pay his bills. One of the students in Larry’s class is the middle-aged and timid Owen Lifts, played by Danny DeVito. Owen lives with his sadistic mother, masterfully portrayed by Anne Ramsey of “The Goonies,” and fantasizes about killing her to be free from her influence.
After Larry suggests Owen watch a Hitchcock film to inspire him to write a better murder mystery, Owen hatches a plot to pull off the perfect crime. He ambushes Margaret on a cruise ship and shoves her overboard, hoping that Larry will reciprocate by killing Momma. Since neither man will have any connection to the victim, Owen believes the police won’t be able to catch them. Larry, realizing he doesn’t have an alibi for the night of his ex-wife’s death, reluctantly agrees to kill Owen’s mother before Owen can frame him.
To its credit, the film takes the premise of a double homicide and makes it a laughing matter rather than dwelling on the grimness of the situation. Larry and Owen are ill-equipped for murder and their antics border on slapstick that feels more Three Stooges than Alfred Hitchcock as Momma continually whacks her would-be killers with her cane and Owen bonks Larry with a frying pan on a whim. Even Owen’s fantasy sequences of killing his mother have a goofy, stylized quality to them rather than any real violence or gore, as if his only frame of reference were old Tom and Jerry cartoons. The way the pair bumble through their scheme to get rid of Momma is endlessly entertaining as she inadvertently thwarts them over and over. More than anything else, this movie feels like an odd couple comedy with very little in the way of grit or bleakness and it’s better for it.
The main cast excels in the movie as well. Crystal shines as the put-upon straight man who finds himself in a completely absurd situation surrounded by eccentric characters. He’s equal parts exasperated and sarcastic. Ramsey was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of the cruel and sadistic Mrs. Lift and she sells the role well enough that audiences will sympathize with Owen for wanting her dead. The breakout performance in the film is DeVito, who plays completely against type. While DeVito has made a career primarily playing sleazy crooks and other ne'er-do-wells, his Owen is soft spoken and sweet. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie involves him showing Larry his coin collection, revealing a tenderness and sadness to the character before the slapstick antics resume.
Not many movies can pull off the balancing act it takes to make a movie about murder fun as successfully as Danny DeVito does in “Throw Momma from the Train.” The director makes his characters just likable enough and just inept enough to make a double homicide fun in a way a director like Hitchcock could never imagine. The end result is the rare dark comedy that is laugh-out-loud funny with a sentimental streak.
“Throw Momma from the Train” is rated PG-13 and is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.