DeVito Throws Hitchcock from the Train

Last month, I wrote a blurb about Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. It’s a great film. So when I realized Danny DeVito’s Throw Momma from the Train was an adaptation, I got excited. But it’s apparent from the start of Throw Momma that the plot isn’t a copy of the original. And that’s okay. It’s different and good.

Danny DeVito’s character, Owen, is in Billy Crystal’s character, Larry’s, creative writing night class for adults, and Owen can’t seem to grasp the concept of “motive.” Going through his own difficulties after his ex-wife stole his novel and is making millions off of it, Larry won’t lie to Owen and tell him his writing’s any good. Seeking approval or explanation, Owen calls Larry at all hours and stalks him to all kinds of absurd places like a small-scale train in a park at night where Larry admits he wants to kill his ex and, just as he’s about to get to third base with his current love interest, hears the crunch of Owen’s popcorn two cars down.

After enough pestering, Larry agrees to meet with Owen and talk about motive in fiction writing. “Why didn’t you like my story?” Owen wants to know.

“It wasn’t motivated.

“Sure it was. The guy in the hat killed the other guy.”

In order to explain motive in real terms, Larry uses the example of how he’d have every motive to kill his thieving ex-wife. And Owen understands he has something in common with the professor: he wants his mother, an old, ugly hag who demeans him, demands from him, and calls him a fat pigeon, dead.

Watch some Hitchcock, Larry says, and whad’ya know but Strangers on a Train is playing. When Owen watches the scene where Bruno hatches his crisscross murder strategy with Guy on the train, he’s sure his professor has just proposed the same deal between to him.

Right away Owen flies to Hawaii, ostensibly pushes Larry’s ex off a boat into the Pacific Ocean, and calls Larry the next morning.

“Owen, what the hell did you do to my wife?”

“I don’t want to say over the phone. All I can say is I killed her last night.”

Larry has no alibi—at the time of the murder he was despondently crying with the seals on the California beach—and he must hide out with Owen and his mother, getting beat up and insulted by the woman, and vacillating on whether or not to kill her and try to put his life back together. He can’t, of course, because he’s not a murderer, and the trio ends up on a train to Mexico. On the train, when Owen’s momma insults Larry’s writing, Larry snaps. He chases her to the last car and it’s unclear as she dangles over the rails whether he wants to kill her or save her. Owen charges in and the three wrestle and fumble and Larry is the one who ends up falling off the train.

At least he gets a book out of the ordeal.

Throw Momma may not be as good a film as Strangers on a Train, but it’s fun to see DeVito’s treatment of the Hitchcock script. The dark humor of the original turns often to slapstick, and the moments of suspense, like when the police almost find Larry in the pantry, make parodies of themselves. Plus it’s cool to see the writers of this movie thinking about writing as they go, toying around with motive. “A writer writes,” Larry repeats to his class. “A writer writes.”

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