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'The War of the Roses' : (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 08, 1989

"The War of the Roses" is yuppie Armageddon, an explosion of empty values and curdled peevishness that blows a marriage and blasts a decade. Under director Danny DeVito's evil eye, a blushing comedic romance becomes a rarefied bedroom Gothic, as black as a witch's mood. In this unflinching adaptation of Warren Adler's novel, DeVito happily turns the boy-meets-girl genre into a squashed bonbon.

"The War's" combatants are Oliver Rose, a disapproving husband, and Barbara, his once-acquiescent wife, whose sudden search for her own identity threatens his control over their marriage of 17 years. As the Roses' love withers, the gorgeous house that he paid for and she restored becomes their irreconcilable difference. When neither will move out, the house beautiful becomes a nightmare on Elm Street.

Michael Douglas -- the actor most likely to turn up in a cautionary tale these days -- is reunited with Kathleen Turner, his costar in the "Romancing the Stone" romps. The feisty screen swashbucklers rebuckle their swashes, as messy divorce movies can be every bit as physical as romantic adventures. For that matter, the couple sees more action than the shark in "Jaws."

DeVito, who directs with a jangle of camera angles, also serves as the movie's master of ceremonies -- reformed ladies' man Gavin D'Amato, a divorce lawyer who narrates the Roses' story in hopes of discouraging a potential client. "A civilized divorce," he warns, "is a contradiction in terms. ... We came from mud. And after 3.8 billion years of evolution, at our core there is still mud. No one could be a divorce lawyer and doubt that."

Here, the fatal attracter becomes the spurned lover obsessed with winning back Barbara, who becomes suddenly vehement about her own independence. Like Gekko on "Wall Street," Oliver is motivated by the pursuit of career and power. A Harvard law grad, he worked his way up in a Washington firm while Barbara stayed home with the kids. Marianne Sagebrecht, wasted in a minor role, becomes the Roses' housekeeper after Barbara starts a catering business, which Oliver treats with condescension.

Always right even when he's wrong, Oliver ushers in the fall of the house of Roses. It is a long tumble that progresses from petty pranks -- he saws all the heels off her pumps, she smashes his collection of Stratfordshire figurines -- to sexual sadism. Director DeVito, who never did know when to quit, manages to be as clever as he is vicious. His first movie, "Throw Momma From the Train," seems almost lyrical in comparison to the ruthlessness of this vehicle.

Oliver is hospitalized with a heart attack that turns out to be severe indigestion, and Barbara realizes her marriage is in trouble when she is happy thinking he may never come home. "I didn't have the strength to sign it," he says of a heartfelt message he wrote to her as he lay dying. "They would have told me who it was from," she replies. Compassion outlives passion, but that too has gone.

DeVito has no real affection for women, but a healthy respect for their killer instincts, as his choice of Michael Leeson's witty, world-weary script shows. "Women can be a lot meaner than we give them credit for," says Gavin. "A man can never outdo a woman when it comes to love or revenge."

"The War of the Roses" takes no prisoners. It is the anatomy of a marriage from first kindling to cold ashes, an end to the truce. After a decade of role-swapping and sensitivity training, we run amok on the realities. Only eight years ago, Tootsie walked a mile in pantyhose. Now it's toot-toot-tootsie goodbye.

The War of the Roses is rated R

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