Best loved for his acting roles, Danny DeVito has also directed several films, including Throw Momma From The Train, The War Of The Roses, and Matilda – we take a look back.
Danny DeVito is rightly beloved for his on-screen work, but it’s worth noting that he’s done plenty of fascinating stuff behind the camera too. As well as being one of the most unusual and instantly recognisable movie stars in the business, he’s also produced some major Hollywood movies of the last 30 years or so via his Jersey Films banner.
One story that tells you all you need to know about DeVito’s producing panache occurred in 1992, while Quentin Tarantino was in post-production on Reservoir Dogs. Having wanted to produce this promising script and then found out that it had already been made, DeVito took Tarantino out for lunch and made a deal there and then to produce whatever his next feature turned out to be. Neither of them knew at that point the result would be Pulp Fiction, but DeVito got on the QT train early on. Jersey Films would later back projects as varied as Erin Brockovich, Garden State, and Man On The Moon.
Meanwhile, DeVito’s work as a director also represents a wide array of cinematic flavours, each imbued with his uniquely dark sense of humour. That same voice comes through in his superbly gross performance as Frank Reynolds on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, on which he has been a regular for 13 of its world-beating 14 seasons so far.
Although he’s been busy with acting in TV, film, and theatre for the last couple of decades, it’s curious that we haven’t seen a DeVito-directed film in cinemas since 2003, especially since he’s actually made another one. Shot in late 2011, his action-thriller St Sebastian has been described as a three-hander starring Lance Reddick, William Fichtner, and Constance Zimmer, but as of 2020, it’s yet to see a release.
Still, we’ve got an array of movies from him that are well worth seeking out on disc where you can get them, because like a man after our own hearts, DeVito is usually exceedingly generous when it comes to director’s commentaries and behind-the-scenes features on the films he’s made. Here’s our look back at the weird and wonderful films directed by one of Hollywood’s best-loved stars.
Throw Momma From The Train (1987)
Following his work on the TV movies The Ratings Game and The Selling Of Vince D’Angelo, DeVito was offered Stu Silver’s script for Throw Momma From The Train, not only for a supporting role, but also to direct it. Playing opposite Billy Crystal’s community-college writing teacher Larry, DeVito plays Owen Lift, a man who fantasises about murdering his overbearing mother.
When Larry advises him to go and see a Hitchcock movie to learn about plot development, Owen mistakenly believes that he’s suggesting a Strangers On A Train-inspired quid pro quo. He duly pushes Larry’s hated ex-wife off a cruise ship, leaving a bewildered Larry to hold up his end of the insane bargain and murder Owen’s formidable matriarch.
As in the films he’s directed since, DeVito’s perspective is suited to this kind of noirish caper, even if this leans more towards slapstick than gallows humour. In the first place, Orion Pictures had trouble securing permission from Warner Bros to reference Strangers On A Train, but eventually cut a deal by giving the bigger studio their stake in 1981’s Arthur. In a roundabout way, Throw Momma From The Train enabled Arthur 2: On The Rocks to be made, but it was the former film that fared better with critics and audiences, giving DeVito a decent-sized hit for his first theatrically released feature.
He and Crystal make an entertaining double act, but it’s Anne Ramsey who steals the show, bagging a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination in the process. Perhaps better known as Mama Fratelli from The Goonies, Ramsey was battling throat cancer during the production and sadly passed away the year after the film was released, but she’s this enjoyable noir spoof’s secret weapon.
The War Of The Roses (1989)
In the mid-1980s, DeVito had co-starred with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in Romancing The Stone and its hastily-produced sequel The Jewel Of The Nile, giving 20th Century Fox two big hits. While a third instalment was in development for a while, the trio would eventually reunite towards the end of the decade for a non-franchise Fox film, The War Of The Roses, which DeVito also directed.
Released in the run-up to Christmas 1989, the dark comedy charts the cautionary tale of Oliver and Barbara Rose (Douglas and Turner) as related by their divorce lawyer Gavin d’Amato (DeVito) to a potential client. Based on Warren Adler’s novel, Michael J. Leeson’s BAFTA-nominated screenplay gives DeVito’s character a somewhat theatrical framing device through which to narrate the carnage that follows.
There’s much less slapstick here than in Throw Momma From The Train, with the abbreviated happy marriage of Douglas and Turner’s characters quickly turning into a war of words and gradually escalating to where they’re fighting tooth and nail. There’s comedy and there’s violence, but far less crossover between the two as the film goes on.
Not unlike this year’s awards contender Marriage Story, the film prizes generosity between couples, even after they’ve fallen out of love, and focuses on the destructive and harrowing nature of divorce as a process. As acid-tipped counter-programming for the festive season, the film was another huge hit for the Douglas-Turner-DeVito trifecta, making $160m worldwide against a $26m budget, but the planned third instalment in the Romancing The Stone series never came to pass.
By contrast with the darkly comic stylings of his previous films, Hoffa is the most straight-ahead dramatic film we’ve seen from DeVito to date. With a script by David Mamet, this contemporary epic provides a thorough but somewhat objective view of the life of Jimmy Hoffa (Jack Nicholson), the American labour union leader whose mob ties and ultimate disappearance were a subject of fascination throughout the decades before.
Oliver Stone and Barry Levinson were attached to make Mamet’s script before DeVito came aboard. Once he was in place, the film would eventually become the very first to be released under his Jersey Films banner. The director also co-stars in the film as Bobby Ciaro, a truck driver who is unfailingly loyal to Hoffa, even if the man’s dogged vendetta to organise his industry often takes precedence over personal friendships.
Somewhat overshadowed by prosthetics, Nicholson’s performance is vintage Jack for the era, but the film largely views him through the admiring eyes of DeVito’s composite character. The result is something of a curate’s egg that split critics at the time. Indeed, the response was so divided that Nicholson holds the distinction of being nominated for Best Actor at the Golden Globes and Worst Actor at the Golden Raspberries for the same role – but frankly, don’t take it from either of the organisations behind those awards.
Released on Christmas Day 1992, it didn’t set the box office alight as The War Of The Roses had. With more historical context and a more characterful portrayal of the man as played by Al Pacino, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman may safely be declared the definitive Jimmy Hoffa movie, but nevertheless, DeVito’s serious, wide-ranging work on Hoffa remains an interesting departure from his usual fare.
Undoubtedly the most beloved of DeVito’s directorial efforts, Matilda keeps the tone of Roald Dahl’s 1990 novel surprisingly intact while transplanting the story to a suburban American setting. Mara Wilson stars as the 6-year-old child prodigy who discovers her telekinetic abilities while vying with her awful family and school principal.
While you’d normally expect purists to bristle at an Americanised movie, most would acknowledge that it’s a smart way of adapting the story. Chiefly, it makes the extraordinary parts even more peculiar, whether it’s Matilda yearning to grow beyond her parents (played by DeVito and his real-life partner Rhea Perlman) and their risible idea of the American dream, or Miss Trunchbull (the magnificent Pam Ferris, who’s the only British member of the cast) looking even more out of place as a steroidal former Olympian who is utterly unsuited to look after children.
The off-kilter, mischievous style of the film feels somewhat inspired by DeVito’s work with Tim Burton. Having discovered the book via reading it to his children, the director shows an unparalleled grasp of Dahl’s wicked sense of humour that makes him ideally suited to adapt it. TriStar executives were a little anxious about whether or not the film would play well and wanted to tone some parts down, so DeVito organised a test screening exclusively for younger viewers, where it reportedly scored very highly.
Although this didn’t convert into box office success (and there are few surer signs that marketing will go badly than when the studio doesn’t get the movie), DeVito was right to stick to his guns and the film is fondly remembered by fans old and new. While we’re looking forward to Matthew Warchus’ big-screen adaptation of the Olivier award-winning musical version, the 1996 film is still arguably the best Roald Dahl adaptation to date.
Death To Smoochy (2002)
Best described as Network meets Sesame Street, Death To Smoochy is a dark but colourful satire about a beloved fuschia-foam rhinoceros created and played by well-meaning sap Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton). With his unshakeable integrity, Sheldon is targeted not only by his disgraced predecessor Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams), but also by unscrupulous charity executives, exasperated network executives, and even some actual Irish mobsters.
Beyond the poor critical reception and its box-office bomb status, Smoochy has previously been dubbed the movie that killed FilmFour, as the British company stumped up $5m of the reported $50m budget for the film, which never got a release in UK cinemas. Instead, the film went straight to VHS and DVD, and Channel 4 folded the production arm into its TV drama department later that year. It was later relaunched as Film4 in 2006, to far greater success, but Smoochy remains a notorious flop.
Still, the movie isn’t what its press might suggest. It’s definitely episodic, playing more like a six-part HBO sitcom strung together in movie format, but there are some quite pointed jabs at commercialised children’s entertainment guiding the wilful nastiness in Seinfeld writer Adam Resnick’s script. Granted, there are a lot of swastikas, ice skating, and penis-shaped cookies too, but even in throwing everything at the wall, what sticks is enjoyable absurd.
DeVito takes a relatively minor role this time, as Sheldon’s conniving agent, but elsewhere, Norton plays against type as he sends up his James Stewart-esque altruist, but Williams is properly off the leash as a psychotic, vengeance-fuelled clown, in the same year as he pursued darker characters in films like One Hour Photo and Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia. It’s a suitably unhinged performance in a film that goes too far both early and often.
Duplex (aka Our House) (2003)
DeVito’s very next film after Smoochy was another ostensibly dark comedy – the Miramax-backed Duplex, better known to UK audiences (who don’t have duplex apartments) as Our House. Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore star as a professional couple who find out their dream home in New York comes with a nightmare tenant in the shape of Eileen Essell’s Mrs Connelly, a nonagenarian lady who lives upstairs. Gradually going mad as a result of her passive-aggressive antics, the couple resort to desperate measures to bring her tenancy to an end.
As many of the reviews observed, this one puts DeVito squarely back in Throw Momma From The Train territory again, right down to a reused plot device during the final scenes. Originally lined up as a project for a pre-Superbad Greg Motolla to direct, this Larry Doyle-scripted folly has the ring of a classic Ealing comedy in its premise, but with its obvious gags and potty humour, it never zeroes in on its Ladykillers vibe.
For DeVito, it’s a far broader comedy that casts shadow puppets rather than enthusiastically delving into darkness. Plus, Stiller and Barrymore play quite entitled and unlikeable characters from the off, making it much easier to root for the “terrible” Mrs Connelly. It’s also tough to shake the feeling that British stage and TV veteran Essell might have somehow snuck in from some superior alt-universe Ealing version of this, because she’s great in it.
DeVito capably steers between slapstick and schmaltz, but next to his previous works, Duplex looks like someone trying to behave themselves. Even with the mad escalation of the stakes, the toned-down delivery of this middle-of-the-road studio vehicle makes its darker strokes feel contrived in a way the director’s bolder, taller tales never have.
Whether it’s St Sebastian or another comedy, we still hope to see DeVito return to directing features with a new generation of fans who’ve watched him be shamelessly, hilariously weird on Always Sunny to back up his singular conviction as a filmmaker.
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