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MOVIE REVIEWS : Till Death Us Do Part : Movies: Director Danny DeVito’s ‘War of the Roses’ takes a biting look at marriage and divorce.

TIMES FILM CRITIC

If the American marriage is frail and on life support systems, then “The War of the Roses” (citywide) is the sneak attack that pulls all the plugs. Pay no attention to its frenzied trailer, which makes it look like an interpersonal destruction derby. In the hands of director Danny DeVito and writer Michael Leeson, “The War of the Roses” is biting and vicious, a styptic pencil on the battered face of “civilized divorce.” It’s also thoughtful, laceratingly funny and bravely true to its own black-and-blue comic vision.

How could the marriage of Oliver and Barbara Rose go wrong? Upward bound from his first casebooks at Harvard Law School, Oliver (Michael Douglas) and outstanding college gymnast Barbara (Kathleen Turner) meet on Nantucket in a bidding war over a bit of 16th-Century Chinese ivory.

Quickly in lust, they progress to marriage, the perfect junior partnership, the perfect set of children--one boy, one girl--the perfect old Washington house, even the perfect burgeoning career for Barbara when the children are older. Then, the perfect pfffft.

The blindsided Oliver doesn’t have a clue why, which is exactly the point. Although Douglas’ performance has been calibrated to give some idea of Oliver’s charm, particularly with his success-dressed peers, you could call Oliver an insensitive, workaholic, self-centered, couthless lox.

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With the boss over for dinner, Oliver prods Barbara into telling a family anecdote, then cuts in to tell it faster and funnier himself. He belittles her first business steps, using her contract papers to squash a fly. Then after 18 years he wonders how Barbara, having been given everything , including a live-in housekeeper (the marvelous Marianne Sagebrecht, fine but underused), could possibly want anything more from life.

When it turns out that what Barbara wants is out, and waiving alimony or a share of his business, asks only for their house--which she has turned into a showplace--the lines are drawn. He would rather die than let her have it. She feels exactly the same. Then DeVito, in an evil turn as Oliver’s friend and divorce lawyer, discovers a little-used statute that allows the husband to continue to reside in a contested house. Now let the mayhem begin.

Begin it does, escalating into tactics Medea might have admired--and may even have used. This is not comedy in the Ealing Studios tradition; it’s comedy in the tradition of the Three Stooges armed with tire irons. It may fright the genteel, but it won’t surprise anyone who saw DeVito’s “Throw Momma From the Train.” Because Adler’s novel is better basic stuff, “War” is far funnier verbally, but it’s something more than punishing comedy. It’s tragi-comic Cliff Notes on the death of marriage and the emptiness of perfection among the have-it-alls, and it can scare you silly.

The beauty of Leeson’s script, from Warren Adler’s same-named novel, is that it builds slowly to Barbara’s breaking point, allowing us to wince along with her at Oliver’s every patronizing act. The tenacity of DeVito’s direction, steady as a thumb pressing on a bruise, keeps the tone brutally consistent. If he had backed away or softened at any point, including our last sight of the Roses, the picture would have gone gurgling down the drain. Amazingly, for a film of the kinder, gentler era, DeVito (and the film’s producers) stand firm.

No one will ever call DeVito a discreet director--not with his low-angle shots suggesting a weasel’s-eye view of life, or his shot of Nantucket through the V of Barbara’s legs as she shows-off with a headstand for Oliver’s benefit. Yet DeVito also manages to suggest layers to both the potentially unlovable Roses, not only to Oliver but to Barbara as well.

Turner’s Barbara may be sexually triumphant, but she is socially unsure and after all these years with Oliver, her self-esteem has vanished. She is a woman who may not have been born to money, but who has learned fast and has poured years of studying and collecting into decorating her house until it could pass any Georgetown dowager’s inspection. No wonder when Barbara’s finished “doing” every room, there’s nothing left to hold her interest. (This house, the work of production designer Ida Random, art director Mark Mansbridge and set decorator Anne McCulley, is dead-on. It conjures up museum-perfect but sterile perfection; the essence of the slick mag drop-dead environment.)

It takes a certain nerve to serve up “The War of the Roses” (rated R for pungent language and sexual warfare) now. But if you’re tired of cloying Christmas eggnog, “War” is Christmas spirits of ammonia. It’ll pick you right up, leaving no nasty hangover and only a faint brackish taste in your mouth.

‘THE WAR OF THE ROSES’

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A Twentieth Century Fox presentation of a Gracie Films production. Producers James L. Brooks, Arnon Milchan. Executive producers Polly Platt, Doug Claybourne. Co-producer Michael Leeson. Director Danny DeVito. Screenplay Leeson based on the novel by Warren Adler. Camera Stephen H. Burum. Production design Ida Random. Editor Lynzee Klingman. Costumes Gloria Gresham. Music David Newman. Sound Jeff Wexler. With Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, Danny DeVito, Marianne Sagebrecht, Sean Astin, Heather Fairfield, G. D. Spradlin, Peter Donat.

Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (younger than 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).


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