Picks and Pans Review: Throw Momma from the Train

updated 01/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

If Psycho's Norman Bates were working as a comedy writer these days, this buoyant black comedy could be his first screen credit. At its best, which is to say its most perverse, Danny DeVito's feature directorial debut is every bit as mean and unforgiving as the imperative of its title. In fact, this strange movie's real accomplishment is far more challenging than being frighteningly funny. Like the suspense film crowd-pleasers to which it is a comic cousin, Throw Momma From the Train admirably manages to keep an audience always on edge. You never know what to expect next from a comedy in which DeVito and co-star Billy Crystal meditate on matricide over a kitchen table. In this twist on Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, about chance acquaintances debating a bargain—each would murder an object of the other's hatred—blocked writer Billy Crystal hates his ex-wife, while DeVito, the dimmest student in Crystal's creative writing class, hates his mother. As played with full-throttle ferocity by Anne (Weeds) Ramsey, Momma is indeed Hitchcockian in her belittling demands and emasculating comments. This is a mother only a mother could love. Kate (A Stranger Is Watching) Mulgrew is Crystal's still-nagging ex. One of the clever ironies of Stu Silver's screenplay is that these two tormenting women reward these two impotent guys with something both desperately need: animosity that at least sparks their imaginations. When Silver's screenplay fixates on DeVito, who plays this peculiar part like the idiot savant of sons, the movie's sad-sack misanthropy arouses a surprising amount of sympathy. But toward the end his script doesn't have the courage of its own cruelty: The plot cops out and DeVito saddles himself with sentimental speeches about his coin collection. As he demonstrated in Tin Men, DeVito has finally tailored his unique talents to the screen. Playing DeVito's inadvertent partner in crime, however, Crystal still hasn't found a way to graft his stand-up rhythms onto a movie character; he's still playing to a concert audience. Nevertheless, even when it doesn't seem exactly streamlined, Throw Momma From the Train does throw you—it's the most disarming comedy of the holiday season. (PG-13)

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