Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Throw Momma from the Train (1987)
Studio Line: MGM - Owen asked his friend, Larry, for a small favor...

Get ready for a runaway comedy that's right on track! "Danny DeVito and Billy Crystal are hilarious [and] Anne Ramsey is hysterically frightful" (The Hollywood Reporter) in this "wickedly screwball" (Playboy) laugh riot that won a Golden Globe® nomination for DeVito and an Oscar nomination for Ramsey. With Rob Reiner and Oprah Winfrey on board for cameos, this fast-track comedy "will certainly make you laugh" (Newsweek)! Writing teacher Larry Donner (Crystal) and his student Ownen Lift (DeVito) have a lot in common: the women in their lives are driving them mad! Larry's ex-wife Margaret (Kate Mulgrew) stole his novel and made it her own bestseller, and Owen's mother (Ramsey) is a monster! But Owen has a plan to kill both of their problems… literally! He'll murder Margaret while Larry sends Momma to her maker! But when Owen fulfills his end of the deal before telling his teacher, Larry's left with no alibi… and an outrageous obligation to knock off the nastiest old lady he's ever met!

Director: Danny DeVito
Cast: Danny DeVito, Billy Crystal, Kim Greist, Anne Ramsey
Nominated for Best Supporting Actress-Anne Ramsey. 1988.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16X9; audio English Dolby Surround 2.0, French Stereo Surround, Spanish Monaural; subtitles French, Spanish; closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; rated PG-13; 88 min.; 16 chapters; $19.98; 5/8/01.
Supplements: Deleted Scenes; Trailer.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/B/D+

In this era of word processors, how will movies continue to depict the frustrations suffered by writers? If I write something I don’t like, I just zap it from the screen. Of course, that’s a hypothetical example in my case, since ever word is a gem and I’ve never had to alter any text, but I understand that computers make revisions easier for the mortals out there.

Unfortunately, the sight of a guy as he presses the “delete” button just doesn’t compare with the classic image of a writer who rips yet another failed page from the typewriter. You can’t fling anything in disgust in this scenario, and it also lacks the visual storytelling evident in a stack of crumpled papers in a trashcan.

I couldn’t help but wonder about this aspect of filmmaking as I watched 1987’s Throw Momma From the Train. In this satirical take on Hitchcock movies, struggling writer Larry Donner (Billy Crystal) suffers from writer’s block as he continues to fume because his ex-wife Margaret (Kate Mulgrew) stole his book idea and became a huge success. As her fame and fortune grow, Larry gets more and more obsessed with his hatred.

Into this picture steps Owen Life (Danny DeVito), a sad little man who takes Larry’s community college creative writing class. Although Owen lacks Larry’s anger, he has his own barrier to happiness: his mother (Anne Ramsey). This overbearing, hideous old wretch pushes Owen around and generally makes his life so miserable that he fantasizes about her demise.

Owen’s not too bright a bulb, and he can’t write, so when Larry offers a cafeteria declaration that he wishes Margaret were dead, Owen thinks he has a good way to make a friend and also get rid of his oppressive Momma. With what he perceives is Larry’s agreement, Owen apparently offs Margaret, and he then tries to get Larry to live up to his side of the bargain.

From there the film progresses through a series of comic plots to kill off the old beast. Their failure is never in doubt, but it’s fun to watch the interaction of Crystal and DeVito nonetheless. As I viewed Momma, I actually remembered a time during which I didn’t loathe Crystal. While I never was a fan of his work, it wasn’t until he entered his smug and cutesy stage after the success of 1991’s City Slickers that I came to truly despise his projects. At his best, however, Crystal could be a fairly engaging and entertaining comic presence, and the bitter and angry Larry offers the actor a role that keeps him from his “love me - now!” tendencies.

DeVito works more against type as Owen, as character who has more in common with Martini from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest than with Taxi’s Louie De Palma. It’s interesting to watch DeVito work as such an innocent, gentle person, and he lends a nice poignancy to Owen’s lack of social graces. We clearly sympathize with Owen, especially because Ramsey makes Momma such a nasty beast. She specialized in that kind of bossing, hideous role, and she played Momma for all she was worth; she has to be one of the foulest characters ever to grace a movie screen.

Mulgrew also provides a nicely catty and smug performance; in her limited screen time, she aptly demonstrates why Larry so despises her. Really, the only drab performance in the bunch comes from Kim Greist as Larry’s prospective love interest Beth. The character feels poorly-drawn and superfluous, but I think that might just be due to Greist. Is it just me or does she always seem to barely register? I haven’t seen a ton of Greist’s work, but I know her work in Manhunter and Brazil also left me somewhat cold.

Actually, Greist wasn’t the only weak link in the acting ranks. Rob Reiner provides a cameo as a gay friend of Larry’s, and he simply seemed annoying and excessively campy. His appearance didn’t possess any relevance to the story and it took me out the film in an unnecessary manner.

Momma marked DeVito’s first theatrical effort as a director, and he does a reasonably competent job as the boss. The film moves at a reasonable pace, and though he makes a few misjudgments such as the Reiner scene and other pointless endeavors, most of the movie is acceptably frisky and entertaining. Actually, Momma often shows a surprising visual spark that makes more sense when one examines the credits. Barry Sonnenfeld acted as cinematographer on the project and the kinetic style he’d later display as director of films like Men In Black and The Addams Family was clearly evident here. I don’t know how much his work added to the project, but it made for an interesting footnote nonetheless.

Throw Momma From the Train isn’t a comedic classic. It may stand as the best film in which Billy Crystal has starred, but that’s more of an indication of his poor choices than a demonstration of the high quality of this flick; Crystal’s one small roles in a number of good movies - with This Is Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride among the best - but his leads have been weak in general. In any case, Momma has its flaws, but it offers a pretty good ratio of laughs to winces and I thought it made for a fun and entertaining program.

The DVD:

Throw Momma From the Train appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although the picture presented some concerns, as a whole it looked pretty good and seemed generally satisfying.

At times Momma showed the vaguely muddy presentation typical of many Eighties movies, but for the most part it appeared somewhat fresher than its peers. Sharpness looked consistently positive, with focus that remained nicely crisp and detailed throughout the movie. There were a couple of minor instances of softness along the way, but these were rare, and the majority of the film looked well-defined. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no concerns, but print flaws were a modest issue. Light grain showed up at times, and various examples of grit, speckles, and general debris periodically marred the presentation. I didn’t think the film seemed to be excessively flawed, but it could have used a nice cleaning.

Colors were a little drab in that Eighties way, but I found them to appear largely clear and accurate. I couldn’t call the tones vibrant, really, but they seemed acceptably realistic and bright. Black levels were better and they appeared fairly deep and rich, while shadow detail presented appropriately dark sequences that didn’t come across as too thick. Throw Momma From the Train didn’t provide an excellent image, but I thought it seemed better than average.

Also positive for the era was the Dolby Surround soundtrack of Momma. Frankly, I didn’t expect much from the mix; comedies usually don’t make much use of the different speakers, and the age of the film also meant it was probably going to be a lackluster affair. However, the movie provided a surprisingly active soundfield that made good use of the different elements. The forward spectrum seemed nicely broad and engaging with good placement of effects and some accurate blending between channels. The surrounds contributed solid general reinforcement of the front speakers and they added a fine layer of atmosphere during appropriate scenes; thunderstorms and trains echoed cleanly and effectively from the rears.

Audio quality seemed fairly good as well, though dialogue showed some problems. Most of the speech sounded acceptably natural and distinct, but some lines - particularly Ramsey’s - were brittle and edgy. Still, the dialogue remained intelligible throughout the film. Music appeared bright and pleasantly dynamic, while effects also showed good accuracy and depth. The mix didn’t provide a tremendous layer of bass, but I thought the low-end response seemed to be nicely rich and warm for a film of this era. I almost gave the audio of Throw Momma From the Train a “B+” because it worked well for the period. The periodic harshness to the speech made sure the mix stayed with a “B”, but it was a strong “B” as I found this to be a generally positive soundtrack.

Although most of MGM’s $19.98 DVDs are strictly bare-bones efforts that only include trailers, Throw Momma From the Train actually contributes something else. Sure, we find the expected trailer, but we also get four Deleted Scenes. Oddly, each of these lasts precisely 30 seconds, which made me wonder if they’d been chopped down from longer lengths. In any case, none of the clips are terribly fascinating, but they made for a decent little addition to the package.

In Throw Momma From the Train, we find a generally satisfying black comedy that offers a decent but inconsistent array of laughs. The movie benefits from a solid cast and acceptably competent execution; it could be pretty erratic, but there’s still a lot to like about it. The DVD provides unspectacular but positive picture and sound plus a minor array of extras. The film at least merits a rental for fans of dark humor, and with a list price of only $19.98, a purchase would be worth consideration.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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