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Review: The War of the Roses (1989)

The War of the Roses (1989)

Directed by: Danny DeVito

Premise: A married couple (Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner) goes through a bitter divorce in which their fight over the house becomes absurdly violent.

What Works: The War of the Roses is an edgy and satirical film and although it is over twenty years old the picture remains a relevant story about modern love and divorce. The story tracks the couple from their first meeting all the way to the bitter and violent end and because it does that the story is able to provide perspective about how and why the couple ends up the way they do. The couple begins happy in a classic romantic set up but as they become more successful and rise on the social ladder the couple gets increasingly discontent. The story works because it is about something very real: how love can spoil with time and the way success, greed, and materialism can poison a relationship. That isn’t the most optimistic or uplifting subject matter but The War of the Roses is able do it in part because of wonderful performances by Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. Even though the film gradually gets more and more absurd there is a core emotional truth about the couple’s downward spiral. The marriage between Douglas and Turner’s character, both the highs and the lows, is very believable and their conflict is exactly the kind of topic that a dark comedy can do but other story genres cannot. Comedy is often an angry, antisocial exercise and in some ways a dark comedy is the purest expression of that underlying disposition. The appeal of a dark comedy is in its ability to poke fun at things that are considered taboo or outside the province of comedy, such as Dr. Strangelove finding the humor of nuclear war or Four Lions making a joke out of suicide bombing. The War of the Roses is a black comedy about divorce and domestic discontent and it finds absurd humor of the way the couple destroys the very thing they are fighting over. Although that is a relevant issue for divorcees at any time, to fully appreciate The War of the Roses, it is important to understand the context in which the film came out. The War of the Roses was released at the end of the 1980s, a time in which there was a renewed focus on what have generally been called “traditional family values,” usually epitomized by 1980s television sitcoms like Growing Pains and Family Ties which focused on affluent white families living is suburbs. The War of the Roses has that same setting and similar characters but it pokes holes in the idea of domestic bliss. That makes this film a subversive piece of cinema.

What Doesn’t: The War of the Roses isn’t just a dark comedy. It’s an understatement to say this is a mean-spirited movie; the story is cynical and vicious and its characters are deliberately unlikable. That is part of the design of the film but as a result The War of the Roses has a limited appeal. This isn’t the kind of film where the audience cheers for the protagonists to succeed; they cheer for the protagonists to fail in an epic way. This is the same kind of pleasure of a Greek tragedy like Antigone or The Bacchae. It is not a mainstream kind of appeal but it’s important to understand and appreciate the film on its own terms.

DVD extras: Commentary track, deleted scenes, image galleries, script, trailers, and TV spots.

Bottom Line: The War of the Roses is a bitter and angry film but it is also mordantly funny. The picture isn’t for everyone but it is a very well done movie that works as a dark comedy.

Episode: #375 (February 12, 2012)