Fox // 1989 // 116 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 5th, 2012
Once in a lifetime comes a movie that makes you feel like falling in love all over again. This is not that movie.
"There are two dilemmas that rattle the human skull. How do you hold onto someone who won't stay? And how do you get rid of someone who won't go?"
When Oliver (Michael Douglas, Wall Street) and Barbara Rose (Kathleen Turner, Body Heat) met, it was love at first sight. They began a passionate love affair, got married, bought a house and had two children. Oliver established himself as a very successful lawyer, while Barbara contented herself with raising the kids and decorating their lavish home. Alas, after two decades of marriage, Barbara comes to the realization that she doesn't like Oliver anymore. In fact, she flat-out despises him. She requests a divorce, and only asks that she be permitted to keep the house. However, Oliver has no plans to simply grant her wishes without a fight. So begins a nasty, increasingly dangerous battle between two people who grow to hate each other a little bit more every day.
In one of the bonus features included on the new Blu-ray release of Danny DeVito's The War of the Roses, producer James L. Brooks states that he always envisioned it as a movie in which men and women would laugh in different places and give each other dirty looks as they did. DeVito agrees. "I bet there were a lot of uncomfortable car rides back home after the movie," he chuckles. Indeed, The War of the Roses remains an exquisitely squirm-inducing comedy that stands tall as the highlight of DeVito's work as a director. I saw the film for the first time when I was a teenager and found it side-splittingly funny stuff. I've revisited it every two or three years since that time, and as I grow older the film seems to grow more savage. Sure, the humor is still there, but the film's unforgiving portrait of a crumbling marriage can make it pretty tough to laugh.
The movie's narrative device is an interesting one: a divorce lawyer (played by DeVito) is offering advice to a client (a silent Dan Castellaneta, The Simpsons) who is seeking to split from his wife. "When a man who gets paid $450 an hour to give advice offers to tell you something for free, you should listen," DeVito notes. Over the course of the next two hours, the lawyer unspools the tragic tale of The Roses, detailing their journey from marital bliss to raw hatred in vivid detail. Midway through the film, there's a brief moment in which the story is interrupted by a phone call from the lawyer's wife. "I'm with a client," the lawyer says, "But love you, miss you, want you." It's more touching than it has any right to be, because it's a moment of tenderness in a film that has long since moved past such delicate feelings.
Much of the comedy in the film comes from the creative ways in which Oliver and Barbara lash out at each other, but the characters remain unnervingly real even as their actions head into Looney Tunes territory. There are giggles to be had from seeing Oliver urinate on Barbara's grilled fish or seeing Barbara lock her husband inside a sauna, but these moments are grounded by the performances and the sturdy writing. "Please leave," Turner whimpers earnestly in the middle of yet another ugly spat. Frequent little moments like that remind us of the wounded human beings beneath these enraged warriors, and prevent us from getting too distracted by the escalating absurdity of their actions.
Douglas and Turner are sublime as the title characters, gleefully jumping at the opportunity to transform their playful banter from Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile into something sour. The film admirably refuses to make either party the primary villain. It's not a big event that causes Barbara to despise Oliver -- he doesn't cheat on her or treat her badly -- but rather a host of little things. The way he interrupts her stories, dismisses her concerns, undervalues her contributions and patronizes her add up over time, and Oliver is effectively blindsided when Barbara announces that she's done with him. Even if he seems more difficult to live with on a daily basis, Barbara proves more malicious and pitiless once the two begin their divorce battle in earnest. Both actors give the roles everything they've got, and DeVito carefully brings the film to a boil as the couple rages towards the finish line.
The War of the Roses (Blu-ray) has received an impressive 1080p/1.85:1 transfer that faithfully preserves the film's original look. Much of the movie has a soft, dreamlike quality (especially the early scenes of romance), so there's only so much the transfer can do in terms of detail. Still, the image is pretty sharp at times, and the Blu-ray release allows one to fully appreciate the countless visual touches DeVito employs in the background. Blacks are rich and deep throughout. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is often on the quiet side, but David Newman's devious score (anchored by a playful tango) gets a strong mix and dialogue is well-preserved throughout. A couple of the larger fights later in the film stir up a bit of noise, but generally this isn't a particularly overwhelming or immersive track.
The supplemental package is filled to the brim with engaging stuff. Things kick off with a giddy introduction from DeVito (tap-dancing on top of the 20th Century Fox logo, just as he does on the Hoffa Blu-ray), in which the actor/director reveals his desire to be a constant presence in every entertainment medium. Moving on, there's an audio commentary with DeVito (ported over from the original laserdisc release of the film), a half-hour chat between DeVito and Jim Brooks (loaded with laughs and fun stories), a ten-minute conversation between DeVito and composer David Newman, a "Deleted Scenes Montage" (23 minutes) in which DeVito offers a sampling of the material that was cut from the film (his first cut reportedly was more than three hours long), a production gallery, a copy of the script, some trailers and a 26-page booklet featuring lots of pictures and behind-the-scenes info.
The War of the Roses can be a difficult movie at times, but it's also a riveting viewing experience with a smart, vicious sense of humor. It's DeVito's finest film and features some of the best work Douglas and Turner have done onscreen. The Blu-ray release is stellar.
Review content copyright © 2012 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Image Gallery
* PDF Script