Tuesday, February 02, 2010

[Movies] Flick Check: Thorw Momma From the Train

Flick Check: Throw Momma From the Train: It had been years since I'd seen this film when I stumbled across it on one of the 937 TV channels I get. I know I liked it back in the day, but my esteem has risen greatly. It is that rarest of things, a quality comedy for grown-ups. The majority of film comedy is in the toilet, at least with respect to its subject matter. Stupid gross-outs and infantile pranksterisms abound; that includes films from the likes of Sasha Baron Cohen or Seth Rogan. There are plenty of teen comedies, but even the good ones are, well, for teens. The rest of what passes for comedies are formulaic chick flicks. Sharp, exquisitely crafted originals like Throw Momma... are true treasures.

A satire based on the excellent Hitchcock film, Strangers on a Train, Throw Momma... is one of the very few spoofs that is even finer than the original. (Airplane!, as a spoof of the low grade Zero Hour and Airport '75, comes to mind, but those films aren't remotely as high quality as Throw Momma/Strangers.)

Billy Crystal is Larry, a two-bit novelist who had his manuscript stolen by his ex-wife and nemisis, played to perfection by Kate Mulgrew. She is now rich and famous and he is stuck teaching creative writing to a class full of dweebs and dolts, one of whom is Danny DeVito's Owen, a slow-witted nebbish who is constantly bullied by his horrible, hideous and hostile momma, Anne Ramsey. At one point, when discussing mystery writing, Larry suggests Owen go see a Strangers on a Train to understand the need to eliminate the motive. Owen mistakes this as an offer from Larry to kill his mother, if Owen kills Larry's ex-wife. Criss cross. Hilarity ensues.

Above all else in this film, the humor itself is near perfection. The script from Stu Silver is just dripping in high comedy all of it delivered with impeccable timing from Crystal and Devito. Seriously, this stuff is worthy of Phil Silvers or Mel Brooks. Beyond that, the characterizations of Larry and Owen are fully formed. As slightly absurd caricatures in a comedy, most scripts would probably pay lip service to fleshing them out. But it's the telling little scenes that humanize them and make us care, despite the fact that they are borderline cartoonish. Larry's hopeless ineffectuality is highlighted when his best friend is being interviewed by the police. "So you don't think Larry killed his wife?" "No way." "Why?" "Larry never did anything." There's your character. Or Owen showing Larry his coin collection, which consists entirely of change that his lost beloved father let him keep as a child. Perfectly understated yet effective characterization.

DeVito also directed and gives the film a pace that Billy Wilder would envy, all the while managing to lovingly use Hitchcockian visual devices without going overboard. As far as I know Throw Momma... won no awards but if you look at IMDB's list of films from 1987, it measures up to the best of them. If there is any justice, retrospective should give us a new appreciation of it. If you haven't seen it, treat yourself via Netflix or whatever.

Oh, and if you find a copy of Pinsky's book. Please forward the link.