Wednesday, February 24, 2010

1989's THE WAR OF THE ROSES marked the brief, delicious return of the true black comedy

The 1980s were marked by a series of shameless, mean-spirited comedies celebrating the joys of middle class materialism -- from Risky Business to The Secret of My Success to any film starring former "Saturday Night Live" comics -- Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, etc. Extreme amorality in the pursuit of social gain was no vice in these comedies. No matter how nasty the characters were -- Bill Murray in Scrooged and Ghostbusters for example -- they never had to account for their actions. The ends always justified the means. Thankfully, director Danny Devito's dark masterpiece The War of the Roses offerred no such assurance. As in the great black comedies of the past -- Monsieur Verdoux, Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, Sunset Boulevard -- the characters must face retribution. The story of Barbara and Oliver Rose (Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas) starts out mimicking classic Hollywood screwball comedies like The Awful Truth or His Girl Friday, in which estranged husbands and wives are eventually reunited through a series of amusing incidents. Then, slowly, the film turns and you find yourself gagging on your guffaws as these partners in a disintegrating marriage engage in mutual assured destruction.

The War of the Roses is often hilarious, but this comedy is not pretty. Rather, it is a bracing splash of carbolic acid in the face of romance and is thus likely to make a lot of people very uncomfortable. Toying with the conventions of domestic comedy is inflammatory stuff, particularly at a time when we're used to drinking our genres straight up. After all, in 1986, when Jonathan Demme messed with our expectations in Something Wild, shifting to a menacing tone in the second half, the audience turned on him. (Perhaps the film was just a little ahead of its time.) Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) also mixed comedy with darker material, and, this time, audiences responded to it. The War of the Roses is more subversive and corrosive than either of those films, however. And if the film is marred by a rather heavy-handed dose of misogyny (it's no coincidence that the movie was directed and written by men -- DeVito and Michael Leeson, respectively), you still have to give credit to any comedy that can make you feel this queasy. Like the Demme and Allen films, The War of the Roses wreaks havoc with our value systems and forces us to face up to the resulting mayhem. An alternative title for the film -- uttered by Turner at one point and originally credited to Dorothy Parker -- could be "What fresh hell is this?"

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