***Review contains moderate spoilers***
Christmas is a time that can inspire deep feelings of isolation even in those imprisoned in a house full of family members (maybe, sometimes, ESPECIALLY for those imprisoned in a house full of family members). Anyone who has ever worked in a movie theatre knows that the cinema offers a welcome respite from fighting, being forced to come up with uncontroversial conversation topics and even having to sit facing one another for about 90 to 120 minutes of soothing darkness. The War of the Roses, Danny DeVito’s 1989 pitch black divorce comedy, was released during the holiday season that year to a very warm public reception; despite the fact that it relentlessly reinforces the reality of the irreconcilable differences lurking beneath the deepest personal bonds.
A typically lovely credit sequence by Saul Bass, comprised of a single rose on a field of folded silk, is the only glimpse of classic Hollywood romance we get in The War of the Roses. In fact, the satiny peaks and valleys turn out to be the folds of a handkerchief into which we find Danny DeVito honking his beezer. Good old Danny DeVito. The man emerged from being simply a lovable grouch on screen; some of us even remember him from Sesame Street (albeit in flesh, not felt); to a director and producer of great power and foresight. DeVito has been plumbing the darkest depths of black comedy from both sides of the camera for much of his forty year career. From Throw Momma from the Train to the remorselessly evil It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Up to and including The War of the Roses, as a portion of DeVito’s directorial filmography, The War of the Roses displayed a distinct slant toward festering domestic disorder. In addition to the aforementioned tales of marital and familial terror, for the Spielberg television serial Amazing Stories, DeVito directed himself in a piece in which, after slipping a stolen wedding ring on the finger of real-life wife of 40 years Rhea Perlman (although those bonds of legal matrimony also, now, appear to be coming to an end . . . ), she becomes possessed by the spirit of a black widow murderess.
Oliver and Barbara Rose meet on the battle field, vying for possession of a piece of sexy antique statuary and they will spend the remainder of their lives together repeating this scene in an ongoing escalation of physical and emotional violence that would describe a perfect lifelong bond, if only their names were Gomez and Morticia. In the unfortunate case of the Roses, the motivation for this initial melee is an all-consuming covetous desire for social and personal power, for which all other emotions in their lives turn out to be mere disguises. Oliver (Michael Douglas) is an ambitious Harvard law student whose brains are insufficiently matched by his bankroll,and this perceived dearth of wealth compels him to reach ever higher. It’s a little bit harder to guess what Barbara (Kathleen Turner), a self-confessed bimbo on a jock gymnastics scholarship, is doing at this auction, having grown up in a state of tacky rusticity.But what’s important is that the two meet under the shared condition of trying to perform cosmetic surgery on their respective images. An early Christmas together shows the Roses and their young children enjoying a luxury car Barbara has splashed out on, with the assumption that Oliver is destined for greatness. Unfortunately, their future is marked not by capitalist success, but murderous competition(The WAR of the Roses, after all) with one another, as symbolized by the Christmas tree that nearly engulfs their home in flames 18 years down the line.
But before we get too far ahead: after the meet-cute, what The War of the Roses next introduces us to about the future Rose family is the only thing that could convince two predators that they’re in love; a ravenous appetite for sex which, pending a serious breakdown in the contract of civilization, is the only option left to human beings who still experience the animal desire for physical combat (well that and the UFC). The obscene contortions of our leading couple in The War of the Roses raise the question: what is it about Michael Douglas that sets America on fire? What is this stocky, diminutive, perpetually middle-aged mezzo soprano, with a bad AND never changing hair cut, doing so frequently nude in bed with some of the silver screen’s most desirable women? Perhaps it’s not so frequent, but rather unlikely enough that it bulges out offensively in his corpus of work. These are not run of the mill make out scenes befitting a late vintage Jack Nicholson romantic comedy or the like. They include Michael Douglas driving Glenn Close literally insane with his sexual prowess in Fatal Attraction; Michael Douglas as the victim of erotic predation for fantastically beautiful female serial killer Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct; Michael Douglas as someone so sexually desirable that Demi Moore rapes him and focuses all her physical fiscal, and corporate power on making him her sex slave in Disclosure; Michael Douglas, in the present case, making vivacious gymnast Kathleen Turner multiorgasmic for the first time in her life in The War of the Roses.
Michael Douglas’ filmography is riddled with stories of business doing what comes naturally to him, briefly weathering the consequences, but ultimately putting his assailants in their place. Media critic Harris Smith, of the blog Negative Pleasure, has described the archetypal Michael Douglas project as one in which upper class caucasian males take a perverse revenge on the minorities they are historically known to oppress. Even in David Fincher’s The Game (thankfully NOT an erotic thriller), Douglas plays a successful financier whose ne’er-do-well brother launches him into a situation in which he should be forced to face his own vulnerability and humanity; but the pathos of the film is predicated on the audience’s desire to see Douglas turn the tables on the opposition. A much more extreme version of this situation is described in Falling Down, wherein a nerdy commuter (identified in the credits as D-FENS) goes on a shockingly violent rampage across LA on his way to visit the child he’s been barred from seeing. Douglas is unremittingly psychopathic in his merciless and startlingly racist attack on the ghetto-dwelling minorities who stand between him and his final confrontation with his estranged wife. On paper it’s a horror story of a terrifying bigot and misogynist, but in practice, it is continuously framed as a righteous underdog’s struggle against the injustices of modern society. See the tagline: “The Adventures of an Ordinary man at War with the Everyday World.” The War of the Roses is, in its way, a perfect example of this kind of film, where real tragedies of domesticity and social welfare are disguised as bawdy comedy fodder.
Despite her Serial Mom savagery, The War of the Roses’ Barbara is much more sympathetic than any of the aforementioned villainnesses in heat, at least by virtue of Kathleen Turner’s charm and charisma. However, the text of the film is relentlessly aimed not quite at her personal faults, but those of women in general. When Oliver’s weirdly hostile sexual advances are violently rebuffed by Barbara, he asks “What the hell is wrong with you?” And their divorce lawyer Danny DeVito asserts: “If you’re with a woman for any length of time, eventually you’ll ask her that question. If she doesn’t answer, that’s trouble.” There is a regular injection of philosophical speculation about the nature of woman in The War of the Roses, all of which concludes that women are extraordinarily dangerous in their stereotypical irrationality; even though everyone on screen is equally repellant. The film is littered with suggestions of a worldwide epidemic of female-enforced suffering, from the “charming” anecdote about a recent divorcee smashing anniversary crystal to spite her husband (and Oliver righteously buying the intact remains from the man to spite the woman), to a man Oliver encounters in the hospital who explains, “My wife stabbed me in the stomach. With a nail file, this time.”
Thus, there’s something about the borderline S&M sexuality of The War of the Roses that is almost as disturbing as the violence, which is considerable. When the Roses come as close as they ever will to achieving the dream of domestic tranquility, it becomes apparent that they’re not wired to enjoy it. “When you work that hard on something,” muses DeVito sagely, “eventually you have to finish and face the awful question: what’s left to do?” After the satisfaction of sexual combat fades from their marriage, the Roses have to find something else to commit their competitive urges to and as she tries and fails to organize a private catering business and he tries and fails to haul in the amount of money that would supprt their lavish lifestyle and home, actual bloodthirsty battle becomes their only option. When Michael Douglas has a near-death experience courtesy of Kathleen Turner’s superhumanly powerful thighs, the latter realizes that she’d be much happier with him six feet under. They agree to divorce, but the house for which they both worked so hard becomes the new trophy to be won and the discovery of a freak legal twist means that neither of them is under any obligation to leave. This means war, The War of the Roses. And war means torturing and killing each other’s pets (Oliver commits catslaughter, as Barbara convinces him that she’s fed him the family dog that ran away), destruction of one another’s property, assault and battery, hurling deadly improvised weapons, setting potentially lethal Home Alone-style booby traps and even attempted rape and attempted castration. Anyone who feels offended by Kathleen Turner referring to Michael Douglas’ genitalia affectionately as “the bald avenger” is likely to be even more disturbed by the presentation of an angry husband trying to rape his wife in order to get her out of the house (let alone what she does to avoid it) as a funny physical gag.
“Some story, huh? What’s the moral? …I don’t know. It could be just this: a civilized divorce is a contradiction in terms,” DeVito intones gravely, as he finishes scaring the daylights out of a soon-to-be-divorced client with the Ballad of the Roses. Although the suggestion lingers in the air that the female of the species is deadlier than the male, The War of the Roses clearly presents a world in which all human beings are dangerous, wherever the struggle for power is mistaken for intimacy. The film is sharply witty and well-played by all, but it delivers a disturbing message for anybody’s money and one that may subtract from more sensitive viewers’ holiday enjoyment. All that said, it would probably be much funnier if Kathleen Turner really did cook that dog.
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