Danny DeVito is one of the most recognizable and distinguished actors in Hollywood, with over five decades’ worth of acting credits to his name. Known for his unique appearance and voice, he’s spent most his career working within the realms of comedy, most notably in Twins, Junior, Mars Attacks! Romancing The Stone, Get Shorty and his appearances in the TV series Taxi and later It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. That’s not to say he’s a one-trick pony; DeVito has tried his hands at a lot of other genres, playing more dramatic roles in films like Rainmaker, Heist and even as the villainous Penguin in Batman Returns.
Aside from his acting, DeVito is also an accomplished director. A genuinely unique and visionary auteur, he’s known for directing films that features elements of dark humor that sometimes verge on the edge of nihilism. Not for everyone, his films have reached varying levels of success amongst critics and mainstream Hollywood, but almost all have gone on to find success amongst his dedicated fanbase and, what’s more, achieve cult status. Here are the 6 greatest movies directed by Danny DeVito, ranked.
Duplex features all the trademarks that make a great DeVito movie: a great ensemble cast, DeVito’s inimitable narration, and dark humor by the bucket. This time around, however, it just ever so slightly missed the mark. The story is about a young couple, played by Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore, who are trying to find a ‘permanent’ solution to the constant ongoing problem of the outrageously frustrating elderly woman (Eileen Essell) living upstairs. The premise isn’t bad and there are a number of moments that certainly evokes a smile, but the main flaw lies in that there just aren’t any characters that are relatable in any way. The absolute absurdity of the elderly lady and her behavior is so unbelievable and over the top that it makes it near impossible to share in the frustration of the young couple as it is just too unfathomable to imagine what they’re going through. That fact the young couple are so unlikable and underdeveloped also makes it even harder for the audience to empathize with them.
A slight anomaly on this list in that Hoffa is a rare example of DeVito working on a project that is not a comedy, though it definitely works, to a certain extent. Hoffa is based on the real-life story of Jimmy Hoffa, who was an American labor union leader and served as the President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) from 1957 until 1971 (also the subject of Scorsese’s The Irishman). He certainly had an interesting life, and after disappearing in 1975, it was rumored that the Mafia had murdered him. Hoffa is played with utter conviction by Jack Nicholson at his most charismatic. Most of the story is told in flashbacks, and despite some praise being aimed at DeVito’s ambitious direction, many found the film to be meandering and dull, and it received mixed reviews and was a box office flop.
Death To Smoochy
Another box office bomb, it’s safe to say that DeVito’s pitch-black humor isn’t for all, but this outrageous story of warring children’s entertainers has finally found its audience in recent years and gone on to achieve cult status among said fans. Many critics found Death to Smoochy to be too nasty, provocative and cynical, but is there really such thing? Robin Williams truly shines as the drunken, foul-mouthed, disgraced, former children’s television host. His sole purpose in life is to sabotage his replacement, Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton) and his character, Smoochy the Rhino. It is clever and witty, and if you can handle the nihilistic cynicism, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable ride.
Now a successful West End and Broadway production, Matilda, the novel by Roahl Dahl, was originally published in 1988 and later became a feature length movie in 1996. Matilda was directed and co-produced by Danny DeVito, who also acted as narrator and as Matilda’s father in the film. Played for laughs in what is possibly the most all-out comedic Dahl adaptation, when examining the plot a little closer, there’s still plenty of DeVito and Dahl’s trademark black humor. After all, it is about a girl who is the victim of family neglect and is terrorized by a teacher who locks disobedient schoolchildren in a closet lined with broken glass. Matilda is tremendous fun, nonetheless, and much of this is down to the committed performances all around from the cast, including Mara Wilson as Matilda, Rhea Pearlman, Embeth Davidtz, and Paul Reubens, alongside DeVito. Despite much critical praise aimed at the movie and especially DeVito’s direction, Matilda, like many others on this list, performed disappointingly at the box office.
The War of The Roses
This 1989 classic comedy directed and starring Danny DeVito follows Oliver and Barbara Rose (played by Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, respectively) who, after 17 years of marriage, are ready to throw in the towel and proceed with divorce. The problem is that neither one is willing to give up their large marital house and its contents under any circumstances. To say the whole process becomes messy is an understatement. With neither willing to budge and leave the house, it turns into all-out war among the two, as the title implies. Petty acts to inconvenience one another soon escalate into mass destruction. Hugely popular, The War of The Roses was not just a hit among critics, going on to become a box office smash hit.
Throw Mama from the Train
Throw Mama from the Train acts as a beautiful homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 thriller Strangers on a Train from which this movie draws its inspiration. This retelling of the classic story has all the hallmarks of a great DeVito flick. The dark subject matter might be off-putting for some, but finding humor in the darkest of places is what DeVito does best. The on-screen chemistry between the two leads, Billy Crystal and DeVito, is undeniable, and Anne Ramsey’s portrayal of the overbearing Mrs. Lift is worryingly convincing. Released in 1987, this feels like exactly the point at which DeVito found his footing and carved out his niche which would shape his future as director.
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