The War of the Roses (1989) / Comedy-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for sexual content, violence and language
Running time: 116 min.
Cast: Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, Danny DeVito, Marianne Sagebrecht, Sean Astin, Heather Fairfield, Dan Castellaneta
Director: Danny DeVito
Screenplay: Michael Leeson (based on the novel by Warren Adler)
Review published January 13, 2009
Based on the William Adler novel, The War of the Roses, an allusion to the bloody Middle Ages battle between the Houses of Lancaster and York, is director (and co-star) Danny DeVito's (Hoffa, Duplex) second theatrical directorial pursuit. It's also his second broadly physical and visually inventive black comedy, coming after the Hitchcockian Throw Momma from the Train. DeVito reunites for the third and final time with the successful on-screen duo of Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, stars of Romancing the Stone and its sequel, The Jewel of the Nile.
Starting off as a sort of parable on how not to conduct a marriage, DeVito plays divorce attorney Gavin D'Amato, counseling a client on a divorce he once had the displeasure of being involved in representing, the attempted split of once-loving couple Oliver (Douglas, Black Rain) and Barbara Rose (Turner, Who Framed Roger Rabbit). The Roses were once a happy couple, but as time went on, Barbara started to fall out of love with Oliver, realizing it in full when Oliver is rushed to the hospital in what is presumed to be a heart attack and she feels a wave of liberation wash over her. Oliver doesn't die, but Barbara can't get over the knowledge that being out of the marriage is her key to happiness again, and she files for divorce. Words are exchanged between the two former lovers, resulting in a proverbial line being drawn in the sand for the fate of their lush and roomy house -- the house Barbara chose and furnished, though all with Oliver's money. The battle for control turns abusive, emotionally and physically, as both parties are too stubborn to back down.
The War of the Roses won't be everyone's idea of a comedy, as things turn sour in some very dark and disturbing ways when the two divorcing partners go so far as to try to kill one another in order to get their way. The final half hour plays like a macabre comic horror film, though both parties go off the deep end, not too far from the crack-up of Jack Nicholson in Kubrick's (and Stephen King's) The Shining. Though dark and serious in subject matter, DeVito keeps the comic tone of the film throughout, not afraid to employ slapstick when necessary to lighten the pitch black tone. It can sometimes get a little too silly, such as when Barbara Rose, a former gymnast, does cartwheels after a push down the stairs, but all in all, DeVito is successful at delivering laughs and interest for the duration.
DeVito is blessed with two actors who do very well at playing at playing comedy in a nuanced fashion, as we can see the remorse in Douglas and Turner's eyes as they commit their heinous deeds toward one another, as if hoping the each other would not make things any more difficult and just back down. Douglas famously once played a husband whose life is turned upside down in a manner beyond his control in another yuppie nightmare, Fatal Attraction, and Turner a tough woman every bit as dangerous, if not more so, than her male counterparts in films like Prizzi's Honor and Body Heat. They work well together, both in love and hate, with their bantering style already established in the aforementioned collaborations in the action-adventure series.
Perhaps it's due to my male perspective, as well as DeVito's (and author Adler's), that there are feelings I can't help but have whenever I watch The War of the Roses of it being less sympathetic toward Barbara than for Oliver. She is the one who turns on Oliver time and again, even wishing him dead at a time when his supposed last thoughts are only of her, and throughout emasculates him in order to get her way. Female viewers may regard her behavior as a bit more understandable from a certain perspective, particularly if they've been in a relationship where the man is the bread winner, as she tries to become her own woman throughout but is stifled by Oliver's generally disapproving nature, though he does humor her in condescending fashion. Her occasional lack of compassion does make her a bit difficult to relate to completely, however.
Oliver also does show his own stubbornness, and crosses the line of fair play to be sure (Oliver saws off the heels of all of Barbara's dress shoes), but it appears to be in part reactive to her aggressive pursuit of the divorce, and in part a play to try to find a way to save the marriage by remaining in the house they are both competing to possess. It plays like a Greek tragedy, not too far from "Medea", with its sad commentary of love squandered and deadly revenge escalating beyond the participants' ability to control (D'Amato counsels Oliver wisely that, "A man can never outdo a woman when it comes to love or revenge.")
The War of the Roses isn't a laugh-a-minute comedy, but it does score some solid laughs (Oliver's very rude interruption of Barbara's dinner party is memorably funny,) and forms an indelible impression in the mind that will be recalled whenever hearing of lovers' quarrels gone violent. DeVito doesn't flinch from the more vicious aspects of the material (save for one shot, possibly added after test screenings, that exonerates Barbara as a dog-killer), in this strange-yet-truthful cautionary fable of how delicate the balance of marriage is when two people who once couldn't live apart can't find any way to live together without killing one another. It's an often difficult satire to watch, yet just as impossible to turn away from.
©2009 Vince Leo