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‘Throw Momma From the Train’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 11, 1987

Danny DeVito wants to kill his mother. Billy Crystal wouldn't mind his ex-wife dead. And in "Throw Momma from the Train," DeVito tries to take care of both problems. But there's a third problem -- the movie.

As written by Stu Silver (and directed by DeVito), "Momma" is a goofy tribute to Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 "Strangers on a Train" -- the classic in which Robert Walker involves Farley Granger in a "criss-cross" murder. It joins a long line of tributes to Hitch -- but it joins this line at the very back, just behind Mel Brooks' "High Anxiety."

Owen Lift (DeVito), a stay-at-home son and would-be mystery writer, gets bullied daily by his mother (Anne Ramsey). And daily, he attempts to strangle her or take the scissors to her but can't bring himself to do it. After his creative writing teacher Larry (Crystal) turns him on to Hitchcock to help him learn the zen of whodunit, he gets his final murderous push (after watching "Strangers," of course) and goes after Larry's ex-wife. Suddenly Larry's wanted for a murder he didn't commit. And Owen expects Larry to fulfill his part of this involuntary deal -- offing Momma on the train.

There's something sardonically amusing about Owen's -- DeVito's -- singleminded aggression. And you can feel how much fun it was for DeVito to direct this. But the movie's one-note broadness seems suited more to cable. And the story takes the wrong routes -- leaving Crystal's Larry nothing more than likable, and capitalizing callously on the irregular facial features of Anne Ramsey as the villainous Momma.

Another pointless ride is Larry's writer's block, exacerbated by his ex-wife Margaret (Kate Mulgrew), who apparently has lifted his book idea and made it a best seller. Meanwhile Larry, at work on his would-be novel, can't get past the opener: "The night was . . ." This might be funnier if it wasn't so ironic.

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