***½/**** Image A- Sound B- Extras A
starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, Danny DeVito, Marianne Sägebrecht
screenplay by Michael Leeson, based on the novel by Warren Adler
directed by Danny DeVito
by Walter Chaw Oliver and Barbara Rose (Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner) have it all: a beautiful house, two children, a dog, a cat, and a burning hatred for one another nursed through years of disintegrating familiarity. The first irony of The War of the Roses is that a film structured around a divorce is named after a historical conflict that ended in marriage--an indication that in addition to being brutally funny, the film is whip smart and dangerous. Framed by sleazy divorce lawyer Gavin D'Amato (Danny DeVito) as a cautionary tale to a prospective client (Dan Castellaneta), The War of the Roses charts the disintegration of the Roses' marriage from sylvan bliss to Stygian night. In no uncertain terms, the film details why dog people should not marry cat people; just how irritating eating a steak can be to your spouse; and the reason that angry sex is the only sex for some couples. A brilliant screenplay (Michael Leeson adapted Warren Adler's novel) and a trio of performances that honour the sharpness and difficulty of said script justifies watching this alternately just-bearable and agonizing comedy.
Opening with a wet T-shirt, a one-night stand, an auction joust, and a Chinese medical homunculus, The War of the Roses announces itself as obsessed with issues of sexual politics. Barbara clarifies the struggle after a heated session of lovemaking: "If this relationship lasts this will have been the most romantic day of my life. If it doesn't, I'm a complete slut." In one of several brilliant moments, the homebound Barbara delivers a long apologia to a prospective housekeeper (the wonderful Marianne Sägebrecht) about her identity as a housewife. The scene speaks to an awareness that the home, the sole setting for the film's third act, is more than a prize to be divided amongst warring parties: it is tied up with the two combatants' sense of achievement and self-worth. Unleashed on theatres at the end of the '80s, The War of the Roses might also be viewed as a statement on the inevitable end of greed--the accumulation of artifacts that define identities rather than enhance them.
Visually and thematically, director DeVito continues the emulation of Hitchcock begun in his auteur debut, the Strangers on a Train redux Throw Momma from the Train. Most notable is the usage of deep focus, the infamous push in/zoom out from Vertigo, the studied artificiality of Young and Innocent and Marnie, and a virtuoso follow of a character falling down the stairs taken from Psycho. My favourite angle is a blurred point-of-view shot that reminded me of the drugged vision of Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, brilliantly transforming the incredulity of a woman betrayed by her lover and his Oedipal mother figure into a Christmas Eve discovery by a child that his parents have stopped loving one another. DeVito's ability to quote Hitchcock while delivering his own acid spin on each pilfered image's interpretation is a daring and delightful feat that infuses The War of the Roses with a level of visual satire apart from its classically Hitchcockian domestic turmoil trope.
Poised on the precipice of "gone to seed," The War of the Roses represents possibly the last time that Kathleen Turner plays a sexpot in a film, and she squeezes every last poisoned drop from a femme fatale role that closes that portion of her career as ably as a similar femme fatale role in Body Heat inaugurated it eight years earlier. More than the lascivious swan song for the definitive Eighties screen goddess, The War of the Roses also represents Turner's best performance, DeVito's best work behind the camera, and save for one moment of equivocation, the most uncompromisingly dark mainstream comedy to ever come out at Christmastime. (Except, of course, for The Grinch, which has the unfortunate distinction of being both unintentionally bleak and unremittingly awful.) The War of the Roses reminds of Hitchcock's audacious, underrated Family Plot, perhaps even doing it one better in its seamless quoting of the master's visual signatures, its gallows humour (note the freshly-dug graves in the cemetery where our heroes court one another), and its consistently brisk pacing. If not for a superfluous epilogue and the sparing of the life of a dog that doesn't make sense in light of what comes before it, the film would have achieved the difficult feat of never once letting its audience off the hook. As it is, The War of the Roses is a sharply observed look at how optimism turns to dread, of the dangers of an identity becoming indistinguishable from a possession, and a coda for a decade that was too often guilty of all of the above.
Fox's THX-approved DVD presentation of The War of the Roses preserves the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio of the film while providing a transfer that is faithful to the saturated colours and dim lighting of DeVito's lurid vision. The print is slightly flawed with moments of grain and pop, and an early pan of eager faces at an auction is a bit too blurry, but by and large The War of the Roses looks extremely "natural" (free of edge enhancement and pixellation) and "filmlike," thus forgiving a few print blemishes. The Dolby 2.0 surround soundtrack is crisp though unremarkable. It avoids tinniness in its numerous 'shatter' sequences and reproduces dialogue in a crystal-clear fashion.
DeVito provides a feature-length commentary track that departs from the off-the-cuff style favoured by newer talk tracks (it was imported from the 1990 LaserDisc box set) by opening with a rigorously-scripted introduction and continuing with heavy note support. The result is one of the most satisfying commentaries I've ever heard, ripe with a heady selection of on-set anecdotes, philosophies of filmmaking, and charmingly self-deprecating exposition ("Here goes Danny again, complaining on your disc," "Look how fat I am in this movie!"). A 20-minute deleted scene montage that gives a taste of the hour-plus trimmed from the work print (letterboxed at 1.85:1, the deleted footage looks polished), four storyboards, 4 trailers and 6 TV spots, sketches of the house set plus 11 director's computer sketches (one of which reflects the idolatry of Vertigo), a working draft of the screenplay, and a still gallery and THX set-up levels round out the disc. Originally published: January 24, 2002.