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In the annals of terrible matriarchs, Anne Ramsey’s portrayal of Mama Fratelli in The Goonies is a legendary one. But it’s her turn in Danny DeVito’s dark comedy Throw Momma From The Train that takes the cake in the pantheon. This criminally underrated send-up of Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train has its foibles, but in Mrs. Lift, the insufferable mother of DeVito’s pathetic aspiring writer Owen, the film might house the most successful instance of slaking an audience’s thirst for murder.
Throw Momma From The Train stars Billy Crystal as Larry Donner, a struggling novelist turned creative writing professor who’s never accomplished a thing in his life. Larry’s always had some excuse or another getting in the way of his own progress. His current hang-up is his ex-wife Margaret (Kate Mulgrew) who stole a book he wrote and has become wildly famous for it. Owen is one of the many untalented schmucks in Larry’s class. He writes crummy stories about murder because he’s obsessed with killing his overbearing mother.
Early in the film, Owen misinterprets Larry’s suggestion of watching the Hitchcock classic for writing inspiration as a coded plea for collusion. Taking his cues from the film, Owen murders Margaret and blackmails Larry into ending his mother’s life, lest Owen turn him into the police. The problem is that Larry lacks Owen’s particular mania and, more to the point, his drive. Larry can’t even finish a new book. How’s he going to find the wherewithal to commit murder.
For the audience, it’s hard to understand Larry’s conundrum, given how specifically killable Mrs. Lift is within every moment of her screentime. Ramsey’s performance here is unique in its perpetual sense of revulsion. Her face looks like the real life inspiration for Jack Kirby’s Granny Goodness and it’s impossible to hear her wet, gravelly voice without reaching to cover one’s ears. Mrs. Lift only seems to speak in condescending put downs, banshee like demands for assistance and casual misanthropy. Most scenes end with you wanting her dead just to get away from the persistent onslaught of abuse and belittlement.
But the moment Larry finally decides to do the deed is the Momma’s finest achievement. Late in the second act, Larry attempts to run away from this predicament by catching a train to Mexico. Owen and his mother join him. As Larry tries to rationalize the terrible twist ending his life has become, he begins to discuss the inherent difficulty of writing a good opening with Owen. Throughout the film we’ve watched Larry war with himself over the first sentence of his novel. Again and again, he types “the night was hot” or “the night was humid,” grappling with the Sisyphean task of proper word choice. Larry and Owen banter back and forth over the conundrum before Mrs. Lift interjects.
“The night was sultry,” she spits.
Mrs. Lift leaves the train car and without thinking, Larry follows after her. When Owen asks where he’s going, he answers “I’m going to kill the bitch.” The anxious indecision of Crystal’s delivery elsewhere in the film is replaced with stone cold resolution. For the first time in his life, he’s ready to take real action.
Momma has some problems with its twin beta male protagonists projecting all of their own insecurities and faults onto the primary women in their lives. Much of that toxicity is diffused with a big reveal in the end that allays some of that severe tone with a lighter touch, but there’s no denying the antagonist power Mrs. Lift wields. Ramsey turns herself into the withering embodiment of maternal dissatisfaction, less an individual than the flesh and bone manifestation of every little boy’s fear of letting his mommy down.
That this psychological failing evolves into blood lust would be pretty disturbing in another kind of film, but DeVito, with a game cast, subverts that perversion into some well executed comedy and one of the most iconic on screen mamas of all time.