The War of the Roses Review

The Film

Danny De Vito must have known he was on to a winner with his previous film ‘Throw Momma From The Train’, when Anne Ramsey drew the Academy Award’s attention with her performance as his domineering mother. Although the film didn’t attract much critical acclaim, nor did it set the box office alight, I found a certain charm in it that begs repeat viewing, and it certainly wasn’t only me who found Ramsey’s eardrum haunting ramblings of ‘OWEN! Fetch me my dinner!’ absolutely hilarious.

Two years on and De Vito began work on ‘The War Of The Roses’ in 1989. The film reunited him with fellow co-stars Micheal Douglas and Kathleen Turner who had earlier collaborated in Robert Zemeckis’ ‘Romancing The Stone’ and it’s inferior sequel ‘The Jewel Of The Nile’.

De Vito plays Gavin D’Amato, a lawyer, who knows Oliver and Barbara Rose, played by Douglas and Turner, as clients and as friends. The film opens with D’Amato smoking in his office, a new client sitting in a chair across from him and a moonlit sky peeping through the window. ‘I get paid $450 an hour to talk to people, so when I offer to tell you something for free, I’d advise you to listen very carefully.’ And so, D’Amato is set up as the narrator for the story and begins to tell the tale of the Roses. The fact that a divorce lawyer is telling the story, coupled with the ‘oh-so’ perfect falling in love stage of their relationship – the scene is set for disaster.

Oliver is career minded, and spends most of his time trying to attain his goal. Barbara is the ‘perfect’ wife who gives her husband the ‘perfect’ home by decorating and furnishing it herself, and bringing up their two children. He earns the money, she spends the money. A cycle not immediately vicious but what appears the perfect existence turns out to be the roots of ultimate doom. When the kids have grown into their late teens and are ready to move on to University, Barbara begins to wonder what she will do now. The house finished and no kids to look after, she finds herself striving for something new and thinks she’s found it in the form of selling home made pate. With the foundations crumbling, the couple begin to find themselves at war and as D’Amato puts it, in these situations ‘there are no winners…there’s only degrees of losing…’

The first thing that strikes you about this film is that it is an exceptionally dark black comedy. Although there are numerous ‘laugh out loud’ moments, the constant feeling of ‘should I be laughing at this situation’ comes over you like a wave of morality. It’s unsurprising then that the dark moments are dark and the comedy moments are even darker, which De Vito, and writer Micheal Leeson do extremely well. I also liked the way cinematographer Stephen H. Burum, creates the sense of perfection outside with the picturesque settings while keeping things cold and daunting inside the Roses’ home. This helps in establishing that this is a satire on married life (or lack thereof) and shows a clear delineated line between what is happening ‘outside’ the relationship and what is happening ‘inside’ the relationship.

Writer Micheal Leeson has no trouble in finding the laughs. With his background of writing for Television sitcom’s ‘Taxi’ and ‘Happy Days’, and writer/creator of ‘The Cosby Show’, this comes as no surprise. Additionally, it comes as no surprise that Danny De Vito is clearly more at ease using a script that, in most respects, is better than the one presented to him by Stu Silver for ‘Throw Momma From The Train’. Here, De Vito at times breaks the boundaries of subtle direction and tries new things. Although, it partly works to good effect, I’d rather he’d stick to his tried and trusted formula because it appears heavy handed. It comes across as a drastic change and is so overtly obvious it shows his lack of directorial maturity.

One of the director’s triumphs in this film is the stellar performance he gets out of friends Micheal Douglas and Kathleen Turner. Partly because they are friends and are relaxed together on and off set; partly because of the top-notch script, but the two leads carry the film with such ease you actually wonder whether they are married in real life.

Although the script and performances are very good, the pace lags a little in the middle. This might have been intentional to show a ‘calm’ before the ‘storm’, but I felt the film needed to push on and not dwindle on the extraneous ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the situation.

This never appeared as a problem for me personally, but the fact that the lawyer is telling the story and is closer, as a friend, to Oliver, we find ourselves siding with him. The story unfolds more from his perspective and that is where our sympathy lies. ‘It is his money that ‘she’ has spent.’ ‘He owns the house, ‘she’ lives in.’ And so on…. Whether this distances the narrative from some people or not, in its entirety it doesn’t matter because this film is about ‘marriage’ and the baggage that comes with it, not sexual differences.

This dark comedy is an improvement on De Vito’s first film but the simple fact is it plays on a fine line between comedy and drama and at times struggles to maintain both. To De Vito and Leeson’s credit, they have created a very good film from the book by Warren Adler. Although it’s not for everyone, the film certainly has enough laughs to maintain repeat viewing and whether the clear message is contrived or not the film stands up as De Vito’s best so far as director.


The film is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced. The print used for the DVD appears clear of notable specks and dirt and therefore we get a clean image. I did notice a little grain on 'close-up' shots, and the colours appear slightly muted. The contrast and sharpness of the image never push the boundaries of the medium, but are good enough to merit this as a worthy purchase.

The sound is a let down on this U.K release not least in that it is encoded only as 2 channel stereo, but that the German release received both German and English Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks. Having said that, in it’s defence, the film wouldn’t really gain anything major from having the DD 5.1 track but people who can play this format will probably think twice before departing with any cash for this release. The 2.0 channels of audio we get on the U.K disc does stand up quite well, as the dialogue appears clear and the background noises, effects and music all do their jobs without ever creating the feeling of a cluttered sound.

When a DVD claims, on the reverse, that it’s special features include an interactive menu screen and scene access you know there’s not much to expect. Unsurprising then, as we only get a theatrical trailer.

This release only really caters for people who want the film and only the film. For those who strive for a Dolby Digital 5.1 track the German edition seems to be the one to go for. For fans who want the audio commentary by Danny De Vito recorded on to the earlier laserdisc release, the up-coming (Release Date: 18th December 2001) region 1 release is the one to go for. This includes De Vito’s commentary, a theatrical trailer, deleted scenes, computer sketches, storyboards and a stills gallery. However, according to reports it will not contain a DD 5.1 track.


A delicious black comedy that improves on the director’s earlier debut, but it arrives on a poor U.K disc that doesn’t compete with the German R2 or the U.S R1.

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