In this blackest of comedies, a perfect 18-year marriage suddenly becomes unglued and the gleefully evil Barbara (Kathleen Turner) and Oliver (Michael) Rose single-mindedly inflict as much misery as possible on each other. Rather than just get divorced, they declare war, fighting to the bitter end over their huge mansion and every possession in it. Not even the calculating guidance of Oliver’s lawyer (Danny DeVito) can stop this uncompromising twosome as their vicious battle sends them on an increasingly dark and dangerous path.
eyelights: Kathleen Turner. the mordant script.
eyesores: the fake exterior of DeVito’s office.
Gavin: “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?”
‘The War of the Roses’ is a film that I vividly recall seeing at the cinema back in the day. I had heard great things about it and, unlike most of my high school peers, tended to gravitate towards more offbeat material – not necessarily fringe, but with an unusual quality that made it stand out from the rest. It was likely a product of the way that I felt in those days, a way to connect to a world I didn’t really feel a part of, to relate with something.
Thankfully, ‘The War of The Roses’ was easily relatable to me: I was a child of divorce and, although I hadn’t seen anything nearly as grotesque as the Roses’ family feud, I had seen some unpleasantness through it all. And, quite simply put, most of my friends were from broken homes; very few kids I knew lived happily with both of their parents, so the subject of divorce and familial disruptions were constant themes around me.
Not all the friends who saw it with me enjoyed it, of course – it is a bleakly dark comedy, after all. But a few of us did, and I had laughed my @$$ off at this exaggeration of marital disintegration – there was some truth to everything that took place in Danny DeVito’s picture, but it was taken to such an extreme that it became cartoonish, easy to laugh along with.
I mean, it’s hard not to laugh at the utter absurdity of the Roses’ actions:
-dividing the house into colour-coded areas (including “neutral” zones) until the divorce is finalized.
-throwing expensive china at each other.
-destroying precious ornaments.
-humiliating each other in front of business partners and friends.
-tripping the other in the staircase.
-locking the other in the sauna, to suffer from dehydration and heat stroke.
-interfering with each other’s work.
-killing off (accidentally, or just pretending to) each other’s pets.
-sawing off all the heels off the other party’s shoes.
-running over the other party’s car with a 4-wheeler – with the other still in it.
-boarding and locking each other up inside the house.
-dropping chandeliers on the other party.
Snicker, snicker… it all gets so out of hand.
Frankly, it would be a horror story if it were meant to be viewed seriously (and no doubt that some people couldn’t help but view it that way). However, Danny Devito managed to make the film come of as a cautionary tale with a wink and a smile behind it by narrating the story from the perspective of Oliver Rose’s best friend and work colleague. An accomplished lawyer, he advises a prospective client about taking up divorce proceedings, suggesting that the man should reconsider and just give until it hurts instead.
Or else suffer the same fate as the Roses.
Oliver Rose: “I think you owe me a solid reason. I worked my ass off for you and the kids to have a nice life and you owe me a reason that makes sense. I want to hear it.”
Barbara Rose: “Because. When I watch you eat. When I see you asleep. When I look at you lately, I just want to smash your face in.”
It’s all played up in such an overly melodramatic way that it can’t possibly be seen as real drama, but we are eased into it by the dialogue and performances of the two stars, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. Michael Douglas was quite good as Oliver Rose; his slow descent into irrationality is professionally conveyed by the veteran. But it is Turner’s unwavering bitterness that takes the cake: this woman loathes the way her husband treats her so much that there’s nothing but winning that matters.
Some people describe Barbara as the villain of the piece, given that she instigates everything and won’t budge even though Oliver still loves her (in his own unique fashion). I have to disagree. This is a woman who has devoted her whole life to her family and has nothing left to do and no one to spend her time with: her kids are off to college and her husband has always been so focused on his career that he can’t be bothered to truly consider her as a partner – he sees her as his possession.
She can no longer take the contempt and disregard, and her anger turns to venom, venom that she can no longer contain. To me, this is understandable. The problem is that Oliver won’t let her have the house, even though she devoted her whole adult life to putting it together, to making it a home; he expects her to leave quietly like a servant who’s been handed her walking papers. He believes that he can just buy her out and keep the house that the paid for, forgetting that she made a home out of that house.
So she fights to win, and he fights to win – both to the bitter end.
It’s interesting because I find neither actor entirely perfect in their roles. However, they brought passion and a chemistry that is abundantly clear on screen. Douglas and Turner (and Devito) had worked together twice before in the films ‘Romancing the Stone‘ and ‘The Jewel of the Nile‘, so they already had a terrific dynamic. This is what makes the film work so well. Despite the characters’ animosity, as well as the emotional and physical abuse, together the actors relished every line, every moment. And it shows.
This is what makes ‘The War of the Roses’ so much fun. Even though it is already a splendid satire of the dissolution of a relationship, it would have lost its humourous undercurrent if it had featured actors who didn’t sink their teeth into each nuance of the piece. Had the cast played it too soberly, without that crucial understanding of the film’s intentions, ‘The War of the Roses’ could have been all grimness, without any twisted merriment to compensate for it.
As it stands, ‘The War of the Roses’ is pitch-perfect. It may suffer from some production limitations, but that’s a minor grievance when the material and execution is so top-notch. Anytime one wants to get a perspective on their own romantic deliberations or past experiences, I can never imagine a better film than ‘The War of the Roses’ to do the trick. After watching the craziness that took the Roses to the edge of madness, one would be able to sigh with relief – relatively speaking, no conflict could possibly be as bad as the war of the Roses.
At least, one would really hope so: falling out of love is hard enough on the heart without having to fight a bruising battle on top of that. Unfortunately for them, the Roses found out the hard way.
Gavin: “There is no winning! Only degrees of losing!”
Date of viewing: December 13, 2012