Thursday, November 21, 2013

Classics: A Review of Throw Momma From The Train By Lauren Ennis

Every great romance, mystery, and murder includes a train
The expression goes that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. While imitation in the arts can range from lazy clichés to outright plagiarism, one form of imitation is truly flattering and innovative when executed properly; the spoof. In spoofs, a popular creative work that audiences are familiar with is parodied and altered to comic effect. The most deft spoofs manage to balance between poking fun at and paying tribute to their original sources. Many spoofs take the more assured route and utilize classic genres and sources that have since become overused or outdated and will easily lend themselves to a comic reworking. When a spoof opts for the more difficult approach by referencing well respected and/or dark source material, however, the risks can prove hilariously rewarding. One such spoof, Throw Momma From the Train, succeeds in the unlikely task of making a classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller into a slapstick comedy while offering commentary on the absurdities of writers and the creative process.

The story begins as struggling writer, Larry Donner (Billy Crystal), makes ends meet by teaching creative writing at a local community college. It is quickly revealed that despite his talent as a writer, Larry is forced to maintain his day job teaching a class of assorted misfits after a messy divorce that resulted in his ex-wife, Margaret (Kate Mulgrew), gaining possession of most of his assets. To make matters worse, Margaret plagiarized his latest novel and used it to become an exceedingly wealthy best-selling author. The combined loss of his marriage, financial assets, and creative work has led Larry to become obsessed with Margaret and the life of critical and commercial success that she stole from him. This obsession eventually becomes so consuming that he is unable to focus on any other aspect of his life including his neglected love interest, Beth (Kim Greist), and his failing writing career.

Meanwhile, one of Larry’s students, Owen Lift (Danny Devito), faces a similar problem in that he is also unable to lead a full life because of his obsession with wanting to kill his cantankerous mother (Anne Ramsey). Unlike Larry, who is dwelling upon events from his past, Owen is forced to endure his mother’s abuse on a daily basis. Mrs. Lift’s constant barrage of insults, demeaning requests, and physical assaults takes such a toll on Owen that he is unable to separate himself from his stressful situation in order to see how irrational his obsession is.  In an attempt to combat his matricidal tendencies, Owen begins writing gruesome murder mysteries in Larry’s class, hoping that vicariously killing in fiction will alleviate his fixation. Unfortunately, Owen’s stories lack believability and complex plots. Desperate to find some success in his life, Owen becomes fixated on becoming a competent writer and harasses Larry into teaching him how to improve his mysteries. At one point, Larry tries to use a hypothetical premise of killing Margaret to explain the intricacies of planning  a murder in fiction and in the process bonds with Owen, who reveals his similar desire to kill his mother. Exhausted by Owen’s relentless questions, Larry finally gives up and tells Owen to watch Alfred Hitchcock movies to understand the structure of a mystery. Owen eagerly follows Larry’s advice and views the Hitchcock classic Strangers on a Train. The film takes a hilariously zany turn when Owen takes his notes on Hitchcock a bit too literally and proceeds to follow the example of Strangers on a Train by pushing Margaret overboard on a cruise ship and using the murder to blackmail Larry into trying to kill Mrs. Lift.

Like mother, like homicidal son
One of the most entertaining aspects of the film is the way in which it balances parody and tribute. While the outrageousness of Hitchcock’s initial premise would seem to lend itself to a comic send-up, the reality of turning the director’s signature thrills into slapstick laughs could not have been an easy task. The character of Owen, for example, had to be likable enough to make audiences look past the fact that he is bent on committing matricide. In Strangers on a Train, Robert Walker’s expert combination of cunning and charisma made psychotic Bruno an intriguing and unsettling, but far from relatable character. In order to ensure that Owen would be sympathetic, the film’s makers used the originally deviant image of a grown man living like an adolescent and turned it on its head to make Owen the likable loser that he is on screen. Similarly, while Throw Momma closely followed the original film's sub plot of protagonist Guy Haines in Larry’s struggle with Margaret, the crucial change of Bruno’s stern father to Owen’s abrasive mother opened the story up to an array of comic possibilities. The film also highlights the complexity of the plot in the original film by showing how easily that same plot would be muddled when in the hands of modern characters. The juxtaposition of retro plot and contemporary setting enables the film to poke fun at the way in which Hitchcock’s film tended to take themselves too seriously, while bringing one his most beloved classics to a new generation. Thus, its innovative approach to Strangers’ original premise allows Throw Momma to be a success in its own right while paying homage to its source.

Although the screenplay is filled with hilarious action and clever dialogue, the film would not have been the unique success that it is without its cast.  Billy Crystal’s deadpan delivery adds a biting element to Larry’s everyman persona, making him an excellent stand-in for the audience point of view. Similarly, Danny Devito’s unassuming portrayal makes Owen a paradoxical character in that he’s a killer that audiences can’t help but root for. Anne Ramsey’s uproarious performance as the caustic Mrs. Lift keeps the laughs coming while adding believability to Owen’s obsession with killing her. During shooting, Ramsey was undergoing treatment for throat cancer, but reportedly refused to miss a day of shooting as she didn’t want to hold up production for the cast and crew. Her dedication paid off in a performance that was so memorable that she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress; a rare feat for a performance in a comedy. The supporting players all lend apt support, particularly Branford Marsalis who makes a lasting impression in his brief part as Larry’s wisecracking friend, Lester.

Through its combination of black comedy, slapstick, and parody Throw Momma From the Train is a truly innovative film experience. The expert casting and writing enable the film to balance dark themes with light comedy in a way that keeps audiences entertained and on their toes. The film’s simultaneous sending up of and respect for Strangers on a Train demonstrates the very best in comedy spoofs. In this instance, imitation just might be the sincerest form of flattery; even if you won’t look at Hitchcock the same way again.

Let me tell you 'bout my best friend...

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