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The War of the Roses (1989)

The strange thing about The War of the Roses is that it’s a film that wouldn’t work at all without its reaction shots. Thanks to Danny DeVito’s directing and the facial acting of its two leads, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, we understand that this once-loving couple has eased slowly and uncertainly into petty (but steadily escalating) behavior. Without that, it would be just another ugly, mean-spirited comedy about horrible people doing nasty things for no real reason (like its chief competition at the box-office, the Roseanne Barr star vehicle She-Devil, which I’ll reluctantly admit does have a few big laughs, but mostly it’s misanthropic).

Douglas and Turner star as the Roses, Oliver and Barbara, a couple whose initial meeting foreshadowed the pettiness to come: they bid fiercely for a high-priced knickknack, and when Barbara wins, Oliver follows her to bicker. Almost immediately, disdain turns to passion, and before you know it, they’re married. By the time the first act is over, twenty years have passed. Oliver has become a successful corporate attorney primarily to finance the mortgage and decoration of Barbara’s dream house. Oliver’s constant working has created a wedge between the couple. So has Barbara’s boredom (induced by finally finishing the house and watching both of her kids go off to college), which she tries to cure by starting a high-end catering business.

One day, Oliver keels over, presumably of a heart-attack. The fact that it’s merely a hiatal hernia doesn’t make Oliver any less angry that Barbara never shows up at the hospital. She eventually confesses that she feared going to the hospital because she never wanted to imagine anything bad happening to her family. Oliver’s heartened, until Barbara goes on: She did start imagining Oliver had died, and she felt happy and relieved. This epiphany leads her to divorce him. She waives alimony in exchange for ownership of the house (her attorney uses an emotional letter Oliver wrote on what he assumed was his deathbed to justify the demand). Oliver feels he has an equal claim on the house, so with the help of his own divorce attorney (Danny DeVito), he cites an obscure precedent that would force them to share ownership of the house.

This sets off the chain of events that gives the movie its title. A few legitimate faux pas lead to petty vengeance, and the whole thing snowballs into a battle royale involving crushed cars, dead pets, and evacuation of urine in places where urine doesn’t belong.

The second hour of the film wouldn’t work at all without those reaction shots—moments that show us both Oliver and Barbara are still recognizably human. Their faces express the guilt and embarrassment anyone would feel with those early, accidental dust-ups. Once things have escalated, they vacillate between genuine anger at one another and the sort of wondering look of a person questioning whether or not he or she has gone too far. This doesn’t stop their bad behavior, and it doesn’t justify it, but it keeps Barbara and Oliver from turning into cartoon characters. It allows us to look at the whirlwind courtship in the first act without feeling like screenwriter Michael Leeson betrays who the Roses once were en route to third-act tastelessness. In fact, those reaction shots alone prevent the film from being as tasteless as it easily could have been. They transform the film from histrionic misanthropy into a genuinely funny farce about two bitter, angry people driven to extremes.

Of course, it helps that Douglas and Turner are perfectly cast as the Roses. They established their Bickersons-style chemistry in Romancing the Stone and its sequel, and DeVito pushes it to comic extremes. It works primarily because their chemistry has a certain weight and history to it; without that level of gravity, they’d just seem hateful. Instead, it feels like years of pent-up frustration on both sides unleashed in wave after wave of unvarnished hostility—but there’s still a tiny germ of love there, enough to let us think both Oliver and Barbara are reacting more from emotional pain than screenplay-mandated vindictiveness.

The thing is, none of this is present in the screenplay—or, at least, not in the dialogue. It all comes from the actors adding subtext and DeVito knowing exactly how to exploit that subtext. Although he also directed Hoffa and Matilda in the ’90s, DeVito the director has become synonymous with warped, dyspeptic comedies. However, this and Throw Momma from the Train contain much more humanity than his later comedies, 2002’s execrable Death to Smoochy and 2003’s borderline-unwatchable Duplex. It’s possible he got lucky with casting coups in these early films, but maybe he simply got too cynical.

Whatever his philosophical issues, his filmmaking skill-set is sharp as ever here. He knows how to put together comic set-pieces, but he also hits on emotional beats with these characters that inferior knockoffs like 1990’s Mad House ignore. Just as the performances elevate the screenplay (which is as much attributable to DeVito working with the actors as the actors themselves), DeVito’s eye for visual detail makes The War of the Roses more cinematic than a lot of comedies. It also allows him to pack in more jokes, in the corners of the frame or the background of a scene. To quote Kurt Longjohn, “It’s a real film.”

The worst thing I can say about it is that the framing device—in which DeVito’s character, Gavin D’Amato, tells the story of the Roses to a client (Dan Castellaneta) to dissuade him from filing for divorce—doesn’t really work. DeVito’s funny, and Castellaneta’s increasingly disturbed body language helps sell the soul-crushing gravity of the story, but it’s mostly just an excuse to narrate the story instead of revealing information in more natural ways. However, that’s a small issue in a very funny movie.

The War of the Roses hearkens back to a heady time when Hollywood made big, star-studded comedies for adults. I miss those days. Even a lot of the “hard-R” comedies coming out these days feel like they’re made for teenagers. At any rate, this is probably the best comedy about divorce not made by Woody Allen. It’s well worth a second look.

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