The War of the Roses [DVD]
Screenplay : Michael Leeson (based on the novel by Warren Adler)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1989
Stars : Michael Douglas (Oliver Rose), Kathleen Turner (Barbara Rose), Danny DeVito (Gavin D'Amato), Marianne Sägebrecht (Susan), Sean Astin (Josh at 17), Heather Fairfield (Carolyn at 17), G.D. Spradlin (Harry Thurmont), Peter Donat (Larrabee)
The War of the Roses is narrated by Gavin D'Amato (Danny DeVito), a high-price lawyer who tells the story to a prospective client who wishes to begin divorce proceedings. Gavin's fee is $450 an hour, but he offers to tell this particular story off the clock. And, as he puts it, when someone who makes $450 an hour offers to tell a story for free, you better listen.
The story Gavin tells is one of divorce—of how, after 18 years of marriage, Oliver (Michael Douglas) and Barbara (Kathleen Turner) Rose grew to resent each other to the point of sheer mayhem. The story, however, is not really about marriage, but about materialism. The War of the Roses is a black comedy that shows how far people who have pledged to live their lives together forever will sink when they grow to hate each other, but the core of the conflict is the fact that they built their life on accumulating stuff, rather than love.
It is telling that, when Oliver and Barbara meet cute on the island of Nantucket at the end of a summer, they are trying to outbid each other at an estate auction for a Japanese statuette. It is also telling that, with the exception of this first encounter, the only time in the entire movie in which they appear to be happy with one another is when, early in their marriage, Barbara buys Oliver a classic Morgan. Their happiness together hinges more and more on the material life they build together, which reaches its apex with an enormous house they buy and proceed to fill with more and more stuff—lamps and rugs and statuary and crystal and so on and so forth. The result is a beautiful home, but one that is more designed than lived in. And, once it becomes clear that Barbara wants a divorce, the house becomes the prized object over which they fight.
Barbara claims that the house is hers because she found it and spent more than a decade refurbishing it and filling it with objects. Oliver argues that the house is his because it was his salary as a lawyer that paid for it. In the end, such claims to ownership matter little because possession of the house becomes little more than a means by which they can lash out at each other—rather than a struggle over who gets the house, it becomes a struggle over keeping the other from getting it. He or she who ends up with it is the victor, but only because the other has been denied it. And all of Gavin's admonitions that there are no victories, only degrees of defeat, fall of deaf ears. When Oliver exploits a subtlety of the legal code to move back into the house while the divorce is pending, all hell breaks loose as the once-gorgeous house becomes a literal battlefield.
The War of the Roses is by no means a conventional movie—it finds humor in the bleakest of circumstances and turns the violence pitted against one another by husband and wife into slapstick pandemonium that is both hilarious and painful. Everything in the movie is racheted up a notch above reality, which is what makes it easy to swallow as satire. Danny DeVito, in his second outing as feature-film director after 1987's similarly toned Throw Momma From the Train, has a knack for visual exaggeration.
The War of the Roses is a love letter to canted angles, distorted lens, rack focus, graphic matches, and complex crane shots. It's a brilliant piece of visual virtuosity, and DeVito is obviously in his element, as the hyperbolic suburban war allows him to indulge all means of visual ingenuity, from a point-of-view shot from a spinning plate thrown at Oliver's face to excellent use of deep focus and mirrors to heighten the tension between Oliver and Barbara. He also has great fun with the casting of Douglas and Turner, who are not only fine actors in their own right, but already had a palpable screen chemistry after being romantically paired the adventure-comedy Romancing the Stone (1984) and its infinitely lesser sequel The Jewel of the Nile (1985).
The War of the Roses is obviously not for all tastes, especially those who don't think that such serious issues as the breakup of the family should be fodder for laughs. Yet, what the film understands so clearly is that there is only a thin line between comedy and tragedy. DeVito plays this dichotomy wonderfully, pitching the tone of the movie to extremes that end up conflating the two, making the tragic funny and the funny tragic. For some, this may be uncomfortable, but for others, it illuminates the inherent ridiculousness of much of human behavior and modern values. It may seem that The War of the Roses is about the breaking of the American family—Gavin's moral is that a "civilized divorce" is a contradiction—but what it really is is a parodic breaking of that great American tradition: materialism .
|The War of the Roses: Special-Edition DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 2.0 surround|
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by director Danny DeVito |
Storyboards for four sequences
Four theatrical trailers
Six TV spots
Sketches of the Rose house
Director's computer sketches
THX OptiMode test signals
|Distributor||20th Century-Fox Home Video|
|Release Date||December 18, 2001|
|The War of the Roses is presented in a new, THX-certified anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer that looks good throughout. As this is an intensely visual film that juxtaposes bright, glaring colors (such as those in Gavin's office, particularly the bold green walls) with scenes shot in near darkness (practically the last quarter of the movie), it was important that the transfer have both well-saturated colors and deep, rich black levels. The transfer comes through on both counts, although there are a few instances of minor edge enhancement and a few of the shots come off a bit too grainy.|
|The soundtrack is available in its original two-channel surround, and for the most part it sounds good. Some of the surround effects are a bit gimmicky, as they rely too much on the left-right separation and don't have the benefit of discreet rear channels to balance it. The soundtrack is clear throughout, although at times it seems to be a bit too soft.|
| All of the supplements on this special-edition DVD have been ported over from the 1991 special-edition laser disc box set. |
Director Danny DeVito's screen-specific audio commentary is immensely enjoyable, as he brings wit and insight into the making of the movie. DeVito is obviously in love with the technical aspects of the movie, and he talks incessantly about the intricacies of crane shots and dolly zooms and the use of split diopters. For those who love cinematography, this is a fantastic audio commentary to listen to.
In addition to the commentary, the best supplement is roughly 20 minutes worth of deleted scenes and alternate versions of scenes kept in the movie (all of which is presented in nonanamorphic widescreen). DeVito offers a humorous introduction to the deleted scenes, informing us that the original cut of the film lasted over three hours. The deleted scenes include additional material when Barbara and Oliver first meet, as well as some additional revenge tactics after they file for divorce, including Barbara's killing Oliver's prized orchids, which explains why he cuts off all the heels on her shoes.
There are several stills galleries, including a good number of production stills, several shots of visual effects props (including an over-size telephone and the fake four-wheeler that drives over Oliver's Morgan), and a poster gallery that contain numerous versions of the exact same poster in different languages. Also included is a fairly extensive set of storyboards for four major sequences: the dinner party, the dog and cat chase, the sauna sequence, and the chandelier sequence. In addition, there are a pair of production design sketches for the Rose house and a half-dozen or so rough computer sketches done by DeVito to visualize several scenes in the movie.
One supplement that reminded me of the laser-disc days was the inclusion of the entire script, something that was often included with special-edition LD box sets, but is rarely included on DVDs. Also included are four theatrical trailers and six TV spots, as well as THX OptiMode test signals for calibrating your system, if need be.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick