Before watching the movie
I know this is inspired by, in the story and in reality, Strangers On A Train, only as a comedy. I can definitely see the comedy in a weird guy trying to get a relatively normal person to do a murder for him in exchange for a murder he did on spec. I’m just now confronting the realization that Danny DeVito has pretty much always been mostly a comedy actor. I thought his career had more roles similar to a Joe Pesci type and then transitioned to comedy later. I don’t know that I would’ve thought of him to be the weird guy who wants to trade murders, but it makes a lot of sense.
After watching the movie:
Larry Donner only ever wrote one book, and his ex-wife stole the credit for it. His hatred for Margaret is the source of writer’s block, and he’s been unable to get more than three words into his current project for years. Larry teaches writing at a community college, where one of his students is Owen, an awkward middle-aged guy living under the thumb of his odious mother, dreaming of killing her but never able to go through with it. His writing is also atrocious, as he turns in draft after draft of completely suspense-less murder stories, and he becomes obsessed with getting Professor Donner to like his drivel. After bonding a bit with this annoying guy about having women in their lives they’d like to see dead, Larry suggests that Owen watch a Hitchcock movie and take notes about how to craft a murder mystery, how murderers hide motive and build alibis. Fatefully, the movie Owen sees is Strangers on a Train, and he gets it in his head that Larry’s suggestion was not writing advice, but a proposal to switch murders just like the movie, and immediately flies off to Margaret’s home in Hawaii to kill her. The next morning, Owen calls Larry to tell him that the job is done, and when is he going to come kill Momma? Larry, having spent the last night drunk on the beach alone, realizes he has no alibi, and is certain he’s going to be the prime suspect in Margaret’s disappearance.
Owen hanging on Larry as the only expert that can help him made me think about What About Bob? though it’s been so long since I saw it, they may not be all that alike. Owen is so clueless about so much, he has a childlike innocence to him even as he’s fantasizing multiple times a day about killing his mother. Larry has just enough issues of his own that he’s only a straight character next to Owen. Larry’s friend and his girlfriend are the main sane viewpoint characters, and they don’t get much chance to interact with Larry once he goes on the lam.
The insane chain of events builds pretty naturally through the movie, and then just kind of stops as abruptly as though they all woke up from a nightmare. They arrive at some satisfying conclusions from that point, but there’s a clear break. I don’t know what could bridge the gap, and I suspect the writers didn’t either.
This is a whole lot of fun and almost reaches the status of timeless 80s classic. It’s unfortunate that the most developed women characters are built up to be murder victims, but they get to be fun villains along the way, and foils to guys that aren’t altogether good themselves. More Hitchcock plots could be redeemed by getting comedy spoofs.