The first of Danny DeVito’s occasional dalliances as a director is a deft, playful riff on Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951).
When embittered writing teacher Larry (Billy Crystal) suggests that his inept student Owen (DeVito) becomes au fait with the Master of Suspense, Owen misinterprets this as a coded signal of murderous intent.
Taking it upon himself to dispense with Larry’s poisonous ex-wife (Kate Mulgrew), Owen reports back expecting assistance in his quest to free himself from the oppressive clutches of his grotesquely nasty ‘Momma’ (Anne Ramsey).
This slick black comedy plays to the greatest strengths of its fine cast. Crystal is on top form as the tightly-wound, neurotic Larry, while DeVito turns in an enjoyably self-deprecating performance as a downtrodden mummy’s boy at breaking point.
But it is the Oscar-nominated Ramsey who steals the show, in what would be the last major role of her career – she died in 1988 aged just 58.
The delight she takes in tormenting her son lends the comedy an enjoyably cruel edge and her creatively profane insults are a consistent source of amusement.
J. Alan Thomas