The War of the Roses (1989)


Danny DeVito directs his Romancing the Stone co-stars Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in this supremely dark comedy about a divorcing couple who are each prepared to fight to the death over who keeps their lavish home. No one and nothing is safe in the feud — not friends, pets, automobiles, or even fish dinners — as stubbornness leads to tragedy in this cautionary tale.

DeVito stylizes The War of the Roses with art and production design so grand and romantic that they’re just outside the realm of believability, encouraging us to interpret this movie as a dark fable. He also employs every gimmick in the director’s bag of tricks — from dollying zooms and flying POV shots, to camera angles so severe they constantly remind you of the director’s hand pulling the strings. Normally, that’s a bad thing — but here it serves to warn us: remember this is just a movie. And don’t get too attached to these people, because they’re doomed.

The screenplay builds elegantly to its sinister finale, as Oliver Rose’s self-absorption and Barbara Rose’s fierce independence leap frog to ever-increasing depths of revenge. My favorite scene is one in which Oliver crashes Barbara’s dinner party by coughing on the food, throwing his handkerchief in the soup, and then relieving himself on the fish entrĂ©e. Barbara immediately retaliates by driving over Oliver’s car in her monster truck while her esteemed guests watch in horror.

I don’t know if a movie like this could work without Douglas and Turner. Having already been established as a screen couple in Romancing the Stone and its sequel, The Jewel of the Nile, they bring an already established chemistry and intrinsic charm to the piece. It may be just enough to make such a dark comedy relatable. DeVito casts himself as the Roses’ mutual friend in the film, a divorce lawyer who tells the story in flashback to a man seeking guidance for his own marital problems.

The War of the Roses may be too dark for mainstream audiences, but its a treasure trove for film aficionados. It’s got a great script, perfect casting, superb production design, superlative cinematography and editing, and a terrific score by David Newman. You can almost feel the malevolent glee Danny DeVito must have felt while directing this movie — one I like to think of as the Citizen Kane of dark comedies.

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