Starring: Billy Crystal, Danny DeVito, Anne Ramsey, Kim Greist, Kate Mulgrew
Rated PG-13 (probably for Violence and Some Language)
Anyone who knows me knows that I have a dark sense of humor. The blacker and more twisted, the better. Witness my glowing admiration for "Burke and Hare," for example. Or "Santa's Slay." So with Billy Crystal and Danny DeVito in the film, and DeVito (who is a master at this sort of thing) directing, I thought I would love this. A twisted take on "Strangers on a Train?" Sign me up. The difference between the two comedies I mentioned is that they were actually funny. This isn't.
Larry Donner (Crystal) is steaming mad. His ex-wife Margaret (Mulgrew) took credit for his book, which became a bestseller. While she's living it up in Maui, he's stuck teaching creative writing at a local community college to a bunch of freaks and weirdos. One of those is a pudgy man named Owen (DeVito), who is passionate writer despite not knowing the first thing about storytelling. Like Larry, he's in a relationship that he would love to get out of. He lives with his ailing mother (Ramsey) who is so wretched and vile that killing her would be community service. When Larry makes the mistake of telling Owen about his problems and mentioning Hitchcock's classic, Owen thinks that it's code for committing a similar crime. When he calls Larry from Hawaii having done the deed, Larry's life is going to get really screwy.
There's no reason this movie couldn't have worked. What it lacks is meanness. A black comedy of the kind that "Throw Momma from the Train" aspires to be must be fearless and savage. There can't be any sacred cows and "going too far" cannot be in the director's vocabulary. But for some reason, DeVito holds back. The situations aren't clever, the stakes aren't high, and very little of it is funny. More odd is the fact that DeVito seems more interested in replicating every twist in "Strangers on a Train" than lampooning it.
The performances don't help. Few actors are more reliable for laughs than Billy Crystal and Danny DeVito. But they're not funny here. As Larry, Crystal is an annoying whiner and a moron. Those are great qualities for a black comedy, where the goal is to wish everyone in the movie would run into Jigsaw from the "Saw" movies. But for reasons probably known only to DeVito, he wants us to like Larry, which is a fatal mistake. Similarly, DeVito is also lacking. Owen isn't crazy enough. The character is supposed to be an innocent, but he's complicit in everything that happens. Wouldn't it have been funnier if he tried to do the right thing but ended up making Larry's life hell? Or been so impossibly naïve that he honestly didn't know any better? There are times when DeVito seems to be taking things into a darker direction, but he either doesn't push it far enough or chickens out entirely.
The three women in the cast are all underused. Anne Ramsey, best known for playing Mama Fratelli in the 80's classic "The Goonies," scored an Oscar nomination for her performance as the mother from hell. She's certainly a bitch with wrinkled skin and a bathrobe, but that's it. With better writing, I'm sure she could have done something special. As it is, she was more vicious and memorable in "The Goonies." Kate Mulgrew doesn't go far enough over-the-top as the target of Larry's jealousy. She must be so arrogant and in love with herself that we despise her, but Mulgrew plays her realistically. And Kim Greist is wasted. Cut her role of the obligatory love interest out and almost nothing would change.
Of course, I could be misinterpreting the film. DeVito could have been trying to make a wacky screwball comedy. But the film's biggest problem remains: it's still not funny.