By Richard Winters
My Rating: 8 out of 10
4-Word Review: Two guys trade murders.
Larry (Billy Crystal) is a creative writing teacher who’s bitter about his ex-wife (Kate Mulgrew) stealing his story idea and using it to write a successful novel that has made her rich and famous while he wallows in the realm of writer’s block. Owen (Danny DeVito) is a writing student taking one of Larry’s classes who is stuck living with his miserable mother (Anne Ramsey) who he’d like to see dead. After watching the movie Strangers on a Train he comes up with what he thinks is a brilliant solution. He’ll murder Larry’s ex-wife while Larry in turn will murder his Momma. Owen does his part, but Larry is reluctant to pull his end of the ‘deal’.
DeVito gets a lot of accolades for his acting, but in many ways I think he is an even better director and doesn’t get enough credit for it. This movie was way ahead-of-its-time and ushers in many interesting juxtapositions and edits that we take for granted now, but was considered quite novel back then. I loved the close-up of Owen’s Hawaiian shirt with palm trees and then a jet plane formatted over it, which is used to cut to the next scene as well as the scene showing Larry’s students sitting in class and then the camera panning over in one take to Larry sleeping on the sofa in his apartment. The segments with a camera spinning around the characters is good and gives it a very Hitchcock feel especially the one with Larry lying on the floor as the camera rotates above him, but the best directorial touch is when Owen goes bowling while imagining that the pins are his mother.
Ramsey’s performance as the ultimate mother from hell is another selling point and one that has made this a cult classic. The fact that the woman was dying of cancer at the time and was in severe pain during the entire time that the movie was being filmed makes it all the more impressive. My only complaint is that it would’ve been nice had there been at least one moment where her character revealed a softer side and made her seem at least slightly human. I also felt that her eventual demise was quite unimaginative especially for a film that was otherwise very creative.
DeVito scores as well in his performance of the nebbish grown son in a character that could’ve easily been unlikable had it not been perfectly balanced, which he does marvelously. Crystal is excellent as a sort of sane everyman stuck in a very insane situation. His best part comes when he paces his house endlessly while trying desperately to come up with the opening sentence of his novel, which I found to be one of the funniest moments in the movie and something every struggling writer can relate to.
The wrap-up is a bit too good natured and works against the story’s otherwise dark comical roots, but it still gets a few points for showing Owen’s children’s pop-up book that he made, which illustrates the film’s scenario.
My Rating: 8 out of 10
Released: December 11, 1987
Runtime: 1Hour 28Minutes
Director: Danny DeVito
Studio: Orion Pictures
Available: DVD, Blu-ray