War of the Roses, The (United States, 1989)

August 30, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
War of the Roses, The Poster

When it comes to dark satires of the romantic comedy genre, few films are more vicious than Danny DeVito's 1989 offering, The War of the Roses. The film revels in its blackness in a way that few films during the last several decades have; even that celebration of misanthropy, Bad Santa, offers a morsel of light at the end of the tunnel. Here, to quote Dante, it's "all hope abandon ye who enter here." As the story wends ever into a labyrinth of increasingly more absurd incidents, one can't but admire a filmmaker who doesn't feel the need to soften things to make his product more "accessible."

The War of the Roses begins as one would expect from a romance - with the meeting of the principals. Oliver (Michael Douglas) and Barbara (Kathleen Turner) seem destined for one another. From the moment of their first encounter - at an auction where they both bid on the same item - the attraction is palpable. Barbara's wardrobe - a blouse that turns transparent when she becomes drenched in a downpour - helps to elevate Oliver's libido. Later, after a satisfying night together in bed, he remarks: "Never, never apologize for being multi-orgasmic." They marry and live happily ever after... for a while. Oliver studies law and becomes a successful attorney. Barbara spends his money as fast as he can make it, transforming their demesne into her dream home. They have two children, a boy and a girl. But cracks soon begin to appear in this fairy tale marriage, and ice seeps into those cracks. They drift apart gradually, as so many couples do, attempting to maintain the appearance of civility. Then, one day, Barbara has a revelation that her life might be better without Oliver in it. So she asks for a divorce, but she wants the house - the one she decorated according to her taste using Oliver's money. This is the first salvo of a series of battles that leave the fields salted and the earth blackened. What starts as a divorce turns into a take-no-prisoners struggle of wills where it's better to die and win than live and lose.

The War of the Roses is narrated by director Danny DeVito, who recounts the tale of the Roses to a prospective client. DeVito plays Gavin, a lawyer caught between Oliver and Barbara, both of whom he considers friends. The decision to use a narrator's voiceover is a crucial one - it creates a buffer between the characters and the audience, and this buffer allows us to laugh even when the cruelty of the humor threatens to turn the chuckles into uncomfortable titters. DeVito treads a fine line here and shows great courage in taking things as far as he does. Pâté, anyone? There are some great one-liners, as when Oliver notes: "You have sunk below the deepest layer of prehistoric frog shit at the bottom of a New Jersey scum swamp." Or Barbara's reason for wanting a divorce: "When I watch you eat, when I see you asleep, when I look at you lately, I just want to smash your face in." Or Gavin's observation in the voiceover: "If love is blind, marriage is like having a stroke." Ain't love grand?

Arguably, DeVito's first stroke of brilliance came in casting Douglas and Turner. The two had previously paired in the two '80s adventure/romances, Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile. The chemistry they exhibited in those movies, witnessed firsthand by DeVito (who co-starred with them), proved to be the ingredient that elevated them above bad Indiana Jones knock-offs. DeVito was able to re-create that spark at the beginning of The War of the Roses; he then gradually allows it to go rancid.

Watching The War of the Roses, I was reminded of David Lynch. Lynch has a fondness for peeling back the veneer coating suburban life to reveal the rot hidden underneath. Here, DeVito accomplishes with black comedy what Lynch does with offbeat, neo-noir thrillers (although a case could be made that some of Lynch's projects lean toward being comedic in a warped sort of way). Some filmmakers take pleasure in poking holes in conventional formulas and approaches, and that applies to DeVito with The War of the Roses. Now, every time you watch a romantic comedy and wonder what happens after the end credit rolls, you can think of this movie. The difference between a happy ending and an unhappy one can be a matter of where the story stops.

DeVito is not a typical filmmaker, so it would be unwise to expect something straightforward and traditional when he's behind the camera. He is fascinated by dark, twisted things, as one can tell from the movie he made immediately before The War of the Roses, Throw Momma from the Train, and from his 1996 adaptation of Roald Dahl's Matilda. If DeVito's life view is one in which sweetness cannot exist without bitterness, and vinegar is the end product of even the best uncorked wines, it is exhibited to its fullest here. However, before deciding that DeVito has a negative view of love and marriage, keep in mind that he has been happily married to Rhea Perlman for more than 25 years.

If the movie wasn't so blisteringly funny at times, it might be unsettling or disturbing and, during its initial release, it received its share of criticism for being too bleak and too uncompromising. DeVito was unrepentant, indicating in interviews that if the movie pulled its punches, it would end up half-baked. Indeed, at the end, with Oliver and Barbara in a perilous situation involving a chandelier that is not properly secured, DeVito teases us with a moment of bonding, then just as quickly pulls the rug out from under us. Compromises could have made The War of the Roses more appealing to mainstream audiences, but those would have robbed it of its edge. I'm reminded of the famous Mr. Creosote sketch in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. It's hard to imagine something more grotesque, and there's no doubt that the comedians pushed things well beyond the boundaries of good taste, but that's what makes the skit so memorable. The same is true of The War of the Roses. It's not happy, but it is funny.

War of the Roses, The (United States, 1989)

Director: Danny DeVito
Cast: Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, Danny DeVito
Screenplay: Michael Leeson, based on the novel by Warren Adler
Cinematography: Stephen H. Burum
Music: David Newman
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:56
U.S. Release Date: 1989-12-08
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1