“When a couple starts keeping score, there is no winning. It’s only degrees of losing.”
The 1980s were the last real era of romantic adventure. While there have been good movies in the genre since (the Fraser-Weisz Mummy movies and Pirates of the Caribbean are the standouts) the ’80s had dozens, and many of them were quite good. One of the most successful, and with good reason, was Romancing the Stone. More romantic than Indiana Jones, Romancing the Stone has a similar blend of action, exotic locales, and comedy, with a charming main cast — Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas, and Danny DeVito. It took in over $115 million and spawned a successful sequel (with a very ’80s music video featuring soundtrack artist Billy Ocean and the film’s three stars).
By the time The War of the Roses hit the big screen, millions of people had seen Douglas and Turner fall in love.
Now they were about to see them fall apart.
The movie is framed as a cautionary tale about divorce, and it is, technically, but it’s as much an indictment of anger and stubbornness. The moral is “don’t lose it all in a bitter divorce,” but honestly “just let them have the fucking house” might be moral enough.
Certain themes will always be connected to the ’80s: an obsession with perfect material goods, “greed is good” (said, no less, by Douglas himself), a retrograde approach to gender politics. The War of the Roses, right at the end of the decade, both reinforces and rejects the era’s obsessions. The house is big and expensive and looks perfect, and is also (quite literally) fatally flawed. Douglas marries Turner as much for her beauty as for love, and she in turn is attracted to his ambition and Harvard Law degree. The Roses’ marital problems begin with Turner’s drive for a more independent life and recognition of her own achievements. She’s sour; he’s balding. (Which of the doomed couple is less sympathetic at the end has been the subject of countless debates; it’s also beside the point. The Roses, by the third act, are both merrily devoted to the exercise of making each other worse.)
Despite its ’80s-friendly moral on its surface (don’t get divorced, it might literally kill you) it’s also tremendously sympathetic to Kathleen Turner’s desire to be seen as her own person and to have her work (both on the house and in her catering business) recognized. Danny DeVito’s sleazy lawyer is, in the end, not quite willing to do anything to win, and ends up happily married; but his happy ending is quite literally over the corpses of two former friends. (There’s also some fat-shaming, which sadly has yet to fall out of fashion, but I don’t think the movie loses sight of the fact that Turner is expected to make the children her life and is then judged hard for doing just that.)
The flaws are there from the beginning, but there’s genuine affection there too, and the tragedy of the Roses is that neither of them are able to step back from the ledge — Douglas’s anger that Turner wants to break out of her role and Turner’s rage at being constrained there are just too much. At the end, Douglas reaches out for his wife one final time — but it’s too late. The damage they’ve done to one another wins, and Douglas breathes his last alone and rejected.
The framing device, with DeVito counseling (and warning) a new client, is a neat trick. Is the story of the Roses even true? Or is this just a cautionary tale DeVito tells his clients, to make sure they back out before it’s too late? I don’t think he tells the story of the Roses to everyone; after all, he has to make a living somehow, and plenty of people get divorced every day without bitter court battles or smashing themselves to death via janky chandelier. I think he’s just learned that some battles carry far more risk than reward and decided that profit has its place, but not at the risk of human pain. DeVito’s growth into a better human being — one who’s chosen to counsel against divorce rather than pre-emptively counting his profit — is the one saving grace that keeps The War of the Roses from falling completely into darkness. (His baffled “This seems rational to you both?” when Douglas shows him a floor plan with the house divided into zones is one for the ages.)
The thing is, divorce will happen. It’s happened, in one way or another, for most of human history, moralistic lectures and revisionist history notwithstanding. People grow up, they grow apart, and sometimes they hurt each other. Sometimes the best solution is to just stop fighting.
But of course, when love and trust break down, some people’s first instinct is to fight. Often, it’s the kind of imbalance that kicks off Kramer vs. Kramer, when Meryl Streep’s depressed, exhausted mother has run out of reserves and just leaves. But the connections that bring people together aren’t always so easy to sever. Divorce can become a proxy war over who was the best parent, the best provider, the best person. Old resentments or new ones can boil over. The anger is often justified, and in some cases more than justified. But the problem with anger is that it only goes so far. It can fuel change and passion and creativity, but not if it’s the only tool left in your emotional toolbox. When anger is all that’s left, it can eat everything else. Sometimes you have to choose between being right and being able to move on. (Forgiveness is a hot topic for good reason; some acts can’t be forgiven and shouldn’t be. But holding on to past pain too tightly can be just as toxic. The trick is to keep a fair accounting without re-injuring yourself.) At every turn, the Roses choose anger and destruction. The fish gets pissed on, the dog threatened. When people stop worrying about the damage they do, things get ugly very quickly. And boy, does The War of the Roses get ugly.
That’s not to say that the movie isn’t funny; it is very funny, with the cast gamely throwing themselves into every petty conflict and vicious attempt at one-upmanship. Turner and Douglas became friends when they were shooting Romancing the Stone and have remained friends ever since. Their crackerjack chemistry shows even as their onscreen relationship falls to pieces; onscreen, their characters can’t let each other go, and offscreen, they trusted each other enough to go to some tremendously raw and difficult places. That the challenge is in the name of laughs doesn’t make the razor edges less sharp.
Audiences certainly didn’t seem to mind; The War of the Roses was the thirteenth most popular film of its year, and critics liked it too: Roger Ebert called it an “odd, strange movie,” but he liked it too.
I met once with a divorce lawyer. She charged a flat fee for a consultation, and I was in need of one, to say the least. She was matter-of-fact and straightforward, and obviously very good at her job. She didn’t think I needed her, and in the end, I’m pretty sure she was right. (I went pro se, and, at any rate, I still have my house. Of course, we didn’t have a janky chandelier to fight over. Maybe that saved us.) A good lawyer, after all, sometimes knows when not to fight.
Jonathan Rosembaum wrote about material objects and how they reflect relationships and priorities in the film here, and it’s well worth a read.