THE WAR OF THE ROSES Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, Danny DeVito, Marianne Sagebrecht. Directed by DeVito. 1989. Rated R. (CBS/Fox Tape, 116 min., Hi-Fi stereo, $89.98)

Whatever chemistry is needed for a great and enduring male/female movie comedy team, by now it's apparent that Douglas and Turner can spare enough of it to bottle. They may not have quite the ease of Tracy and Hepburn, or the suavity of Powell and Loy, but they have a special battling and embattled charm of their own that, particularly with the additional catalytic presence of DeVito, can work wonders on the screen.

The pugnacious DeVito has his own special approach to comedy as a director, which, certainly as shown by "Throw Momma From the Train," could only be called aggressive and black. So what happens when DeVito, as both director and narrator, tells the story of a happy, industrious yuppie couple, Barbara and Oliver Rose, who take divorce proceedings to the ultimate length, until death do them part? Well, he is still aggressive and black, and his movie comes close to a horror flick.

You laugh and laugh and laugh -- at least until the exaggeration of the mayhem inflicted upon these two marital gladiators becomes just a little too much, a little too repetitious.

They turn from love to hate, fighting it out with no quarter halved, still living in the same house and turning it into a bloodstained arena.

The joy of the movie is not especially in the plot. Indeed the proposition, and perhaps even the outcome, is murky from the start. Moreover, DeVito's idea of plot escalation, with himself as the Roses' lawyer telling the tale as an object lesson to another client contemplating divorce, is cumbersome to say the most.

The joy is in the performances -- the smug, pompous fury of Douglas, the devastating hatred of Turner (watch for the chill moment when she mistakenly thinks Douglas is dead -- and decides she likes him better that way) and the cheerful vulgarity of DeVito. And don't miss the special horror of German actress Sagebrecht (of "Baghdad Cafe" fame) as an implacable housekeeper.

VIDEO REVIEW MAGAZINE THE WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP