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Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Retro Review: The War of The Roses (1989)

The War of the Roses
Cast: Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, Danny DeVito, Marianne Sagebrecht, Dan Castellaneta, Sean Astin
Genre: Black Comedy
Worldwide Box Office Gross: over $160 million

Plot: A married couple try everything to get each other to leave the house in a vicious divorce battle 

'Unlike The Bon Jovi Song, This Ain't No Bed Of Roses' 

There are two sides to Danny DeVito: one is the actor, who tends to play antagonist and dark characters and who revels in bringing forth their despicable nature for the audience to see in Romancing The Stone & Batman Returns; the other is Danny DeVito the movie director, whose dark and acerbic directorial efforts divide and polarise audiences. You have the family-friendly PG-13 to G-rated fare like Throw Momma From The Train & Matilda, which touches on dark themes, but of which these films never become too extreme in its approach. And then you have the one-two sucker punch in say Hoffa and the disappointing Death To Smoochy, which many others have cited as the deathbed for Robin Williams's career (I probably included) that utterly revels in DeVito's wild & repellent antics & in such dark extremities. 

1989's The War Of The Roses and DeVito's fourth directorial effort and the follow-up to the enjoyable Throw Momma From The Train, sees the pairing of Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, who was formerly known as Jack Colton and Joan Wilder in Romancing The Stone and The Jewel of the Nile reuniting in his effort as the doomed couple, Barbara and Oliver Rose, who after 17 years, see their marriage disintegrate right in front of them and all hell breaks loose, right after when Barbera tells her husband she has had enough and wants out and they go through a messy divorce. Neither one of them wants to part with their home and possessions and so Barbera and Oliver duke it out in a never-ending war that would only end in tragedy.

The third Michael Douglas & Kathleen Turner collaboration, it is a tale of love, marriage and divorce, and death told in atypical fashion and given the good, old-fashioned DeVito sledgehammer treatment. Barbera and Oliver turn the tables on and have a right go at each other, but neither side having complete and total upper-hand over the other. It was entertaining to see the two-ing and froing of these two, as they do everything and anything in their power to make each other miserable and detest one another, completely. And boy, the things that those two do to each other is rampant and beyond callous it rears its ugly head, but it also shows how much they cannot stand each other. At the same time, the cynicism and acerbic nature, mean-spiritedness and sheer disdain just cut through like a knife through butter: this wasn't going to end well for either of them and yet also in watching this film, you saw that the journey wasn't pleasant and affable. And pleasant and affable this wasn't. If you took Barbera and Sam Stone's hate relationship from 1986's Ruthless People and multiplied it by say, 100, this is what you get. DeVito must've taken a hint from that movie to make something as dark and moody as this. 

I was also surprised at how much ground DeVito covered, insofar as character development in terms of the regression, and not of progression of Oliver and Barbara's marriage. This is not a story about love, of romance, of two people falling in love but of two people who were in love with each other. With most films that tackle the ''happily ever after'' saga, The War of The Roses seeks to not undermine this intent, but emphasise that not all marriages last long, but also the key to a long-lasting marriage is two people who make the relationship work. And if one of them is unhappy, that is a sign or could be a sign of trouble. 

When I went into this film, my initial instincts were I was not going to enjoy this and having enjoyed every bit of Douglas's and Turner's exploits in Romancing The Stone and feeling their passion, I felt this movie would obliterate all that and make me hate on Douglas and Turner, as well as DeVito. Well, as a matter of fact, what I was watching in The War of The Roses, I manage to see Douglas's and Turner's characters as the cold, repellent sad sacks in Barbera and Oliver, resenting each other's company - and not as Jack and Joan, thankfully and managed to separate the two. Although in Oliver, unlike his spouse at least he tries to and wants to keep their marriage together. And yet, this in itself, causes further problems and makes the situation 10 times worse as Oliver is trying to and wanting to make an effort, but stubborn Barbera just doesn't want to hear or know about it. I didn't like either of their characters, truth to be told so I didn't root for either of Barbera and Oliver and still I enjoyed this movie because of how DeVito dealt with the plot and how the film unfolded. It was entertaining - yet spiteful and sharp to boot as well.  

The image of Oliver urinating on the cooked fish was an unsightly image to see and though there are complaints that it may be a tad silly and cartoonish, again, the violence for instance as extreme as it looked, it was so chaotic and nasty. It was like watching a human version of a Tom & Jerry cartoon with say Joan as Jerry and Oliver as Tom. 

Nonetheless, as a Black comedy and anti-romantic comedy/screwball comedy, I think this film demonstrates Danny DeVito's talents behind the camera. His role as the divorce lawyer as he exists more to tell the story worked effectively and though it is cynically depressing at times and dark as it is vociferous and mercilessly hateful, The War of The Roses is not utterly morbid enough to throw me off and detest it, completely. 

Which, coupled with the performances, characterisations, writing, is a plus. 

Final Verdict

The War of The Roses is well-directed, well-acted and in spite of the acerbic tone, this was still watchable and the more the film went on, the more I fully enjoyed it. & just as importantly, it works in all areas. I'm a little torn between this film and Throw Momma From The Train as being Danny DeVito's best and highlight as a director, although I also enjoyed the former. His compositions have a very ingenious take on them: as dark as his direction is in his movies, from a visual standout, he really manages to bring that and its characters to the forefront and express it. 

Barbera and Oliver are shallow and heinous enough that the audience can take pleasure in wallowing in their own pain and narcissism, but not to the extent to which it completely overrides and derails the film's tone and makes it completely vicious enough for one to abhor the movie.

The War of The Roses remains mad, bad, cynical, scathing and incessantly dark, a journey from A to B that was thoroughly entertaining and engaging as it went on, and it is also one of the highs in DeVito's often diverse and at times disjointed directorial offerings, which many of them, were sadly far from overly decent (again, I am looking at you Death To Smoochy). 


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