Danny DeVito, the Rumpelstiltskin of American comedy, takes a tumble in his directorial debut with an embarrassing remake of Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train." The teeny auteur turns the murder-swapping thriller into a dispirited black comedy, "Throw Momma From the Train." Better yet, just throw the whole thing in front of a subway and hope it gets dragged a couple of miles.

DeVito plays a slightly dim momma's boy in a departure from the cantankerous troll that served him so well in "Ruthless People." Here he is sweet, docile and dull as Owen, a middle-aged mouse abused by his greasy-haired hag of a Momma (Anne Ramsey). While removing wax from Momma's ear, Owen dreams of skewering her with scissors, but he's just too nice for that.

Crystal has a low-key role as Larry, a whiny novelist who has had writer's block ever since his ex-wife stole his book and soared to the top of the best-seller list. He spends most of his time trying to finish the first sentence of a new book: "The night was ... Moist. Hot. Hot and wet. Humid."

To make ends meet, he teaches writing to a class of brain-dead losers. Among them is Owen, a would-be mystery writer, and Larry suggests that Owen hone his skills by studying "Strangers on a Train." Owen misunderstands and sneaks off to murder Larry's ex, assuming that Larry will reciprocate by smothering Momma -- a` la Robert Walker and Farley Granger in "Strangers." Soon Larry is wanted for his wife's murder, hiding out with Owen and Momma in their rat-infested house. Slapstick ensues.

The story becomes a fairy tale of impotence, all tricked out with choo-choo trains and Hitchcockian camera angles. Owen plays with his toy trains; Larry and his girl (the delightful Kim Greist) nuzzle in a little locomotive; later she reads to him from "The Little Engine That Could." But this is The Little Train That Couldn't.

Throw Momma From the Train, at area theaters, is rated PG-13.