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EMPIRE ESSAY: The War of the Roses Review

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

★★★★

Danny DeVito had already demonstrated that his sense of humour was on the noirish side with his directorial debut Throw Momma From The Train in 1987 as well as his starring role in the underrated Ruthless People. And he had seen the chemistry between Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner first hand when he starred with them in Romancing The Stone (1984) and its sequel Jewel Of The Nile (1985). The highlight of each movie had been the acidic verbal sparring on the way to the inevitable romantic clinch in the third act. Bolting the two elements together seemed to be a good idea and the vehicle was a novel by popular American author Warren Adler which had been a publishing hit way back in 1980.

A script was hammered out by Michael Leeson (with whom DeVito had worked on his breakthrough sitcom Taxi in the 70s) and the result was one of Hollywood's darkest comedies; a tar-black farce that not only pulls no punches (well, maybe one, see Benny the dog) but dared to deliver what is, in Hollywood at least, an unthinkable ending — both leads are not only intensely unlikable but they die at the end. It's as if Frank Capra's evil twin turned up and made a movie.

The common critical take on War Of The Roses is that it's "like a fairy tale gone sour." They're half right. In fact, it's just like a fairy tale full stop, from its slightly magical opening in a Washington lawyer's office — a roaring fire and snowy view of the Capitol from the window and a storyteller (in this case a divorce lawyer) ready to spin a yarn. "When a man who makes $450 an hour wants to tell you something for free, you should listen," he announces to a silent client who has come to initiate divorce proceedings, before beginning a cautionary tale as violent and sadistic as Little Red Riding Hood, whose motto may as well be the distinctly un-Hollywood, "hate conquers all".

Leeson's script is an object lesson both in structure and style. Essentially a romance movie written backwards — the couple begin with the sexy clinch, in fact they're in bed within the first 10 minutes, before ending up as strangers, albeit strangers that happen to be married to each other (it's an inversion cleverly attested to by the fantastic poster tagline: "Once in a lifetime comes a motion picture that makes you feel like falling in love all over again... this is not that movie"). It's also a screenplay that niftily avoids what could, in fact, be a depressing, distasteful film with levels of emotional anguish too stratospheric for laughter.

The Roses are set up as a pretty unsympathetic couple, likable only for a few minutes at the beginning before their true natures are revealed. They're a pair of grasping yuppies, him desperate to make partner at his law firm, her obsessed with the house and its soft furnishings and rearing a pair of pampered kids. Indeed, the whole movie can be seen as a sly dig at the materialistic 80s. Leeson gradually removes potential collateral damage in the shape of sympathetic secondary characters — Susan the live-in is sent away and the couple's two children go to college — leaving the stage set for the ensuing theatre of cruelty.

And what follows is a kind of demented Shakespearean slapstick (the dialogue even gets archaic towards the end: "What fresh hell is this?" inquires Barbara wearily of her hubby's latest booby trap). Crockery is flung, cats mown over, fish pissed on, and in the only moment where DeVito apparently loses his nerve, Benny the dog isn't mashed into pate and fed, Titus Andronicus style, to his loving owner. Positively dizzying levels of bile and cruelty are attained (solicitors still use the phrase "a war of the roses" to describe real-life messy divorces), as the petty niggles of life together are magnified into unforgivable transgressions. As Barbara eloquently puts it, "Every time I look at you — I want to smash your face in."

DeVito proves to be not only a reasonably sophisticated filmmaker employing split diopter lenses and crazed angles to invoke the horribly distorted marriage, but a recruiter of superior technical talent — it's unusual to find such distinguished names in comedy credits. The opening title sequence is by Hitchcock's credit creators of choice Saul and Elaine Bass; David Newman's score riffs mournfully on Only You while Ida Random's gloriously OTT production design is handsomely shot by Stephen H. Burum (Rumblefish, Carlito's Way). And though he necessarily softens the catastrophic ending with a slight up-note — our anonymous client decides against divorce in the penultimate shot — the sight of two bloodied corpses spreadeagled amidst the remains of a shattered chandelier remains one of comedy cinema's most gleefully sour.

Not the Hollywood Shmaltz-fest you would expect from the title.