The War of the Roses

Nothing is harder to watch than a marriage turned murderous, but The War of the Roses, Danny DeVito’s movie on the subject, is downright easy on the eyes. Practically every scene is cleverly engineered and expertly paced, and the camera moves with smooth civility even when husband and wife are bumping each other’s heads down their grand spiral staircase.

DeVito runs the show on camera as well as off. He plays a friend of the feuding family, the law partner Michael Douglas hires and then fires as his divorce attorney. DeVito tells the whole tragedy in flashbacks to a new divorce client (who’s a stand-in for the movie audience): how the couple met when he (Douglas) was a Harvard Law stud and she (Kathleen Turner) a nubile gymnast; then how they got rich, had kids, became estranged, and turned their palatial mansion into a combat zone.

Douglas and Turner are getting as deft at doing pratfalls as Fred and Ginger were at dancing, but this is not a comedy — they’re not making Romancing the Stone here. Instead, DeVito uses their practiced romantic rapport to make a sardonic point: that rage can bind people more inextricably than love ever did. In their final showdown, they’re stuck in a glittery chandelier that looks a lot like a spider’s web.

The War of the Roses is handsome, well-made, and quite dispassionate. While the Roses’ lives spin out of control, DeVito’s direction never loses its cold, clinical precision. If you want a real marital horror story, try Fatal Attraction or Harold Pinter’s Betrayal; if you want marital comedy, try Tracy and Hepburn. The War of the Roses won’t crack you up nor break your heart, but it’s a well-aimed satire of the state of holy deadlock.

The War of the Roses
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