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Review: Throw Mama from the Train (1987)

Throw Mama from the Train (1987)

Directed by: Danny DeVito

Premise: A frustrated writer (Billy Crystal) agrees to kill the mother of one of his students (Danny DeVito) if the student will kill the writer’s ex-wife.

What Works: Dark comedies are among the toughest kind of comedy to do right. Scenarios like those of Four Lions, Dr. Strangelove, and Heathers are easy to blunder because they must be told with a very specific tone and because they often require a reversal of the usual storytelling goal. In every story, the main character has to want something, and in most successful stories the audience empathizes enough with the protagonist to want him or her to succeed. Dark comedies are predicated on the protagonist wanting something that is socially unacceptable and making the audience want it as well. In that respect, Throw Mama from the Train is one of the better examples of a dark comedy. The film takes an awful premise and exploits the absurdity of it and generates a lot of laughs in the process. The film does this by overlaying the tensions so that the audience’s expectations are set up and foiled, leading to compounding comic payoffs. The performance by Anne Ramsey as the overbearing mother holds the film together. She is awful to everyone around her and yet there is some glimmer of pathos in her frail state that stops the audience shy of wanting to see her killed. Danny DeVito’s performance as her half-witted but earnest son fits Ramsey’s role perfectly. DeVito character is very much like a little kid and he has that kind of reactionary and simplistic view of life. Billy Crystal’s character is the grownup of the three leads and as he is unwittingly mixed up in this murder pact he is torn between killing this woman or walking back on his word. It is a surprisingly effective dilemma that plays out well throughout the film.

What Doesn’t: Sensitive viewers should be aware that Throw Mama from the Train is not necessarily for general audiences, despite its PG-13 rating. Like many dark comedies, the film requires a certain macabre taste on the part of the viewer and there is an underlying misogyny about this movie. The film doesn’t try to pass misogyny off as a virtue the way a lot of frat boy comedies like Porky’s or The Hangover Part II have done, but it is there. For those who do enjoy dark and edgy fare, Throw Mama from the Train does lose its way in the finale. The film does not follow through on its transgressive qualities and goes for a happier ending. It is a disappointing finish to what is otherwise a delightfully mean-spirited film.

DVD extras: Trailer and deleted scenes.

Bottom Line: Throw Mama from the Train may not be for everyone but it is a very good dark comedy. The film manages to be very funny in a specific kind of way and it has some great performances.

Episode: #348 (July 17, 2011)