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Directed by Danny Devito, Throw Momma From the Train is a dark comedy about two men who collide over their relationships with women, one an ex-wife and the other a mother. The premise, which is gleefully borrowed from Alfred Hitchcock‘s Strangers on a Train (there is even a scene of it in the film), is only so deep though and spends all of its time on the male perspective, painting the two women with broad monochrome strokes, which isn’t necessarily damaging to the story, but eliminates any chance for a more satisfying reason behind the men’s motivations. This is especially true of ‘Momma’ (Anne Ramsey), who emerges in the story like a stock movie monster and attacks with no provocation other than because that is what it does. Some history would have greatly added weight to the role, but as it is, she is merely Mr. Hyde with no Dr. Jekyll. Ramsey is undoubtedly perfectly cast as the cranky old beast and with great conviction, makes it easy to see why Owen feels as he does, but it comes off a little one-dimensionally and as a lost opportunity for some laughs. What saves this though is the nice work between DeVito and Crystal, who are a great duo, with Owen a wonderfully charming, slightly simple-minded character who is at the end of his rope and Larry, a weak-willed, easily manipulated man who just wants to get what he deserves. While the film can’t seem to make up its mind if it wants to be a nasty comedy or a sweet one, it remains a solid and often very funny film.
That Moment: At this point, Larry believes Owen has murdered his ex-wife (played by Kate Mulgrew). The problem is, police suspect Larry is the murderer and with no place to go, he ends up hiding out in Owen’s home. Owen, in his signature spastic state, cooks Larry some eggs while trying to convince him to do the deed, something that Larry has been against from the start. Owen assures him that Momma is old and has a “bad ticker” and so wouldn’t have to be violent, just scary. This is the moment when Larry actually meets Momma and she is as every bit as frightening as Owen has painted. A bit later, the two men are in the next room alone and Larry, reeling from a knock in the head by fry pan, is becoming ensnared in the craziness that is swirling around him. Owen, who is constantly talking, wishes to show Larry some special trinkets he has kept as treasures, including a coin collection. Larry agrees to take a look and the two end up on the floor with Owen laying out five coins that he admits have no monetary value beyond their minted worth. Confused, Larry suspects Owen might truly have a problem in his mind, but then, Owen explains what the coins mean to him, each being change back from a special occasion in his life that he shared with his now gone father. The confession surprises Larry and he sees something wholly different in the little man beside him.
Why it Matters: Humanizing Owen is the movie’s most important goal, for without that we would never get behind his motivations. If he were a monster, he would be no different than how we are meant to perceive Momma. To this point, he has been singularly minded in his pursuit of Larry’s services, his persistence based only on the fact that Momma is mean. By introducing a father element, even as slight as it is, the moment has great impact. In only a few lines, we come to fully understand a relationship we never actually see and the powerful impression a dad had on his boy. Owen, a fully grown man, still clings to the memories of a childhood that was, most clearly made in this short scene, protected and nurtured. Five coins represent a time when life was free of the oppression of Momma, when he still had good times in his life and was cared for and loved. This moment is crucial, and while it is short, is often best remembered because of its deeply sentimental value. Seemingly out of nowhere, we are hit with a tremendously emotional confession, an invitation to learn more about the man caught in a cage with hungry tiger.
Danny DeVito, Billy Crystal, Anne Ramsey, Kate Mulgrew, Kim Greist