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MOVIE REVIEWS : DeVito Throws Energy Into 'Throw Momma'

December 11, 1987|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

As an actor, Danny DeVito compels your attention in lots of weird ways. He ignited TV shows like "Taxi" and movies like "Ruthless People" and "Tin Men" with his eye-rolling Jersey bombast and his oddball physical mix. His diminutive stature, wild hair and bulging eyes sometimes make him look like a human grenade who's just had his pin pulled.

As a movie director, he has a similar explosiveness. "Throw Momma From the Train" (selected theaters), DeVito's major feature directorial debut, has some of the florid, grab-your-eye intensity of his acting.

The images are loud, brazen. The scenes seem overheated, full of reflexive self-mockery. The movie kids itself, which is one reason why its seemingly gross subject--the inept attempts of a would-be writer to draw his teacher into a murder plot--stay relatively inoffensive. The story and actors keep tippy-toeing over horror, dancing around pathology with the skittishness of a spooked tramp on live coals.

DeVito plays Owen Lift, a frenzied blue-collar butterball imprisoned in a hellish relationship with his slightly invalid, tyrannical mother (Anne Ramsey.) Momma roars constantly for attention, reviles and beats him with a crutch; he fantasizes hideous revenge.

Owen finds a modus operandi. At his writing class, where he hatches infantile detective stories, teacher Larry Donner (Billy Crystal) casually suggests that Owen study Alfred Hitchcock to improve his inane plots. Larry is a novelist suffering from catastrophic writer's block, whose only book was stolen and published by his ex-wife Beth (Kate Mulgrew); he just wants to get Owen off his back.

But Owen mistakes the crisscrossing murders of Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" with an actual suggestion to swap murders: Owens' Momma for Larry's ex-wife.

From then on, Owen is an obsessed, plug-ugly demon pursuing Beth through her sybaritic Hawaiian excesses and dragging Larry into a nightmare of guilt--all the way home to the cavernous warren of screaming Momma.

"Throw Momma" is another Hitchcock pastiche or parody, but--taken from Stu Silver's coldly clever, verbally intricate script--it has more depth and humor than usual. It grows out of "Strangers" like a crazy-house mirror. Just as the earlier film had a subtext of homosexuality--with the silken, smiling psychopath Robert Walker trying to tease handsome tennis pro Farley Granger into killing his father--"Throw Momma" is about impotence. Larry Donner can't write, can't have sex with his girlfriend (Kim Greist) and can't even sleep because Owen keeps calling him.

Against Larry's inability to do anything, is Owen's overwhelming, idiot energy. Owen, a sad-eyed little troll in a tawdry tract house, trapped in a life style that seems to mirror Larry's impotence, is a pint-size, misdirected dynamo, irrepressibly spouting off energy in wrong directions. He isn't blocked enough.

"Strangers on a Train" was about a conflict between good and evil, but "Throw Momma" is about a conflict between impotent intelligence and rampaging stupidity. Neither Owen nor Larry is evil; they're just consumed by pain, entrapment and destructive desires--spurred on by movie archetypes that send their collective id shrieking into chaos.

DeVito mirrors all this with a style that suggests a merry-go-round mock-up of film noir ; his major weaknesses are in his action scenes, which tend to be helter-skelter collages. DeVito's cameraman, Barry Sonnenfeld ("Blood Simple"), gives the movie a lurid gleam, loads it up with monomaniacal tracking shots, grotesque low angles and slapstick high angles.

And DeVito gets a manic ensemble stylization from his cast: Crystal is the incarnation of frustrated self-obsession; Ramsey's Momma is a great, rasping gargoyle; Greist throws a salt of sanity into the madness, and Mulgrew's Beth radiates selfishness and greed like a perfumed witch.

"Throw Momma From the Train" (MPAA-rated PG-13) can be taken as a piece of sublimated misogyny, just as "Strangers on a Train" is usually taken as sublimated homosexuality. But perhaps the undercurrents shouldn't be pushed up too far.

The movie becomes a cracked fairy tale with a pixilated, benevolent moral. The song that inspired Silver's title was actually called "Throw Momma From the Train . . . a Kiss, a Kiss," and you can hear that silly wet smack behind the seeming chaos and carnage of the movie.

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