Patron Pick – The War of the Roses

This special reward is available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 monthly levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. If they choose, they also get to include some of their thoughts about the movie. This Pick comes from Bekah Lindstrom.

The War of the Roses (1989)
Written by Michael J. Leeson
Directed by Danny DeVito

In the 1980s, a rather unconventional trio of actors paired together on three projects. These were Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas, and Danny DeVito, starting with Robert Zemeckis’ Romancing the Stone in 1984 and continuing into its sequel, The Jewel of the Nile, in 1985. DeVito brought them all back together for this, his third directorial outing. Why did audiences seem to love these three together? They certainly have good chemistry together, and the conflict between them is very satisfying to watch. Turner & Douglas as a screen couple seems more traditional, but the addition of DeVito as a semi-antagonistic role in these pictures pushes it into a much more satisfying space. What does he bring to the table that makes it all feel complete?

Lawyer Gavin D’Amato (DeVito) is discussing divorce with a potential new client and discloses the story of a close friend’s divorce that ended horribly. Oliver Rose (Douglas) meets Barbara (Turner) while he is a law student at Harvard. They hit it off immediately and end up married with two children in the blink of an eye. As Oliver’s law practice makes the family wealthier. Barbara sets her sights on a mansion that is up for sale. Unfortunately, cracks spiderweb throughout their marriage, such as Barbara’s penchant for indulging her children in sweets, lead to them being slightly overweight. That draws Oliver’s ire, and he wants to be the center of his wife’s attention. Barbara finds Oliver’s babyish nature grating, and after she fails, in his estimation, to care enough about a false heart attack scare, divorce is put on the table. These two people begin striking out at each other with venom that is both hilarious & painfully real in moments, leading one to believe this is a story that will end in tragedy.

A survey of Danny DeVito’s directing work reveals a particular penchant for presenting the audience with some truly nasty characters, from Throw Momma From the Train to Matilda and Death to Smoochy. DeVito clearly loves characters that challenge the audience to find something to connect with. There’s a back-and-forth going on across the internet in discussions of the media about whether an author’s inclusion of morally questionable & reprehensible figures is an endorsement or not. Any reasoned mature adult knows these problematic figures should have a place in art as a means to explore the full scope of human existence. Scorsese does not endorse Travis Bickle’s actions, but he certainly has empathy for the man as a mentally ill Vietnam vet who receives no support from society. Frankenstein’s Monster does terrible things, but I think we understand he’s ultimately a victim who never really had a chance. DeVito makes this even more challenging to the audience by presenting his unlikable characters in the context of comedy.

Comedies are often seen as the opposite of dramas in that dramatic entertainment is challenging while comedy is lighter fare. DeVito makes funny movies but also layers them with complex moral ideas. While Turner & Douglas had been flirty within their arguments in the Stone/Jewel films, in The War of The Roses, they genuinely hate each other. Oliver thinks he loves Barbara, but she’s a piece of his complete collection for life. What DeVito is presenting us with is that the 1980s had clearly communicated the path to success was through labor & exploitation. You had a good life if you had an expensive house, an expensive car, and a good-looking wife & kids. Yet, we all know those things do not guarantee happiness. They certainly alleviate some of the baseline stresses associated with survival, but you will not be without conflict in your relationships. 

The things that get under the Roses’ skin at first are the things all couples wrestle with at some point. The little habits that become annoying will feel overwhelming based on proximity, but people in relationships learn to deal with them. The Olivers simply cannot because it’s not these little quirks that are making them mad; it’s the fact that there is no love in their relationship. They are going through a series of steps placed on them by society, and they have bought into the idea that happiness lies at the end. They get to “the end,” and they aren’t happy. Instead of asking powerful questions about the nature of happiness and where it comes from, the Roses decide it is each other that is the problem. It’s a common error while living in capitalism. The key to my happiness leads to attacking people on my same class level or lower, we tell ourselves, only to end painfully miserable anyway, but now alone. 

The War of the Roses is an exceptionally nasty movie, and critics & audiences struggled with it on its initial release. DeVito does not pull his punches and lets the movie end on such a bleak note. But it’s one of the most honest films about relationships in modernity & under capitalism to ever be released in the United States. The film was a massive hit in Germany, where its title is still referenced by the media when a high-profile divorce becomes exceptionally cruel. The different reactions across the Atlantic reveal something about the film. 

Living in the Netherlands, I have come to see how different their culture approaches relationships, marriage, sex, etc. You live knowing that life will be a struggle and you will have conflicts, but the best way to deal with this is to be direct and have clear boundaries. If a relationship is over, you just walk away, it might be nasty depending on the individual, but for the most part, people are far more interested in resolving the conflict and moving on with their lives.

In the United States, where personal grievance serves as the core motivator for most politics and life choices, people let break-ups and divorce remain mean without regard to the well-being of children or their own mental health. Because we don’t have positive conflict resolution modeled for us, we assume that all conflict must be messy and cause people to have emotional outbursts and potentially commit violence. Of course, some people don’t do this, but the cultural norm among the masses is this behavior. I’ve lost count of the number of times I saw couples publicly screaming and arguing when I lived in America, and there always seems to be a bitter celebrity split cropping up in the news. 

DeVito’s lawyer tells his new client this story as a means to talk him out of the divorce and into trying to open up communication with his wife. The tragedy of the Roses is funny in how relatable their pettiness starts, but it becomes something bigger, louder, and uglier by the end. Critic Roger Ebert at the time expressed that the film has points where it almost breaks through the bubble of comedy to become something much more dour. He’s right, and I don’t think that’s bad. However, if cinema in America were used to be more open & honest about the nature of romantic relationships, it might help change the chaotic way people live. Seeing the ugliness is essential; it’s hard to notice when you’re on the inside, but watching another couple act out those things can enlighten viewers. The War of the Roses certainly has flaws, but it remains one of the best American movies about divorce and the corrosive nature of privilege in people’s relationships.


One thought on “Patron Pick – The War of the Roses”

  1. Pingback: Fall 2022 Digest

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