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Film / The War of the Roses

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Based on a 1981 novel by Warren Adler, The War of the Roses is a (pitch) Black Comedy from 1989, produced by James L. Brooks and directed by (and co-starring) Danny DeVito, about an escalating war over marital assets between wealthy, divorcing spouses Oliver and Barbara Rose (Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner) that gets taken to a ridiculous and tragicomic extreme.

The title is a Shout-Out to the English war between the noble houses Lancaster and York.

This film provides examples of:

  • All Just a Dream: Implied that the entire story is fake, one that a lawyer tells to convince a client not to divorce his wife. Part of it is that the lawyer has knowledge to events he couldn't possibly have known.
  • Amoral Attorney: Gavin is an aversion, actively trying to steer both Oliver and Barbara from doing anything stupid or unethical (such as when he rather pointedly sets up a recorder when Barbara tries to seduce him to make it clear sure it couldn't be said he'd done anything untoward).
    • Oliver may act amoral or immoral at times, but not while engaging in his legal career.
  • An Aesop:
    • Divorce proceedings may try to remain civilized, but can quickly devolve into acrimony, greed, and even physical violence. The least harmful way is for the parties to part ways as quickly and cleanly as possible.
    • You can't force love. Oliver constantly loses the fight because he simply can't let go of Barbara, who not only can't stand him anymore but can more easily manipulate him.
  • Awful Wedded Life:
    • The Rose couple's marriage already became passionless and boring. Once they get divorced, things really start going to hell.
    • Gavin implies his own parents' 63-year-long marriage was also pretty bad in spite of being married so long.
  • Berserk Button: See Eat the Dog below. Oliver was petty and childish in his half-hearted comebacks to Barbara, and he even tries to make peace after she nearly (and deliberately) kills him in his sauna, but that event was the turning point that made him every bit as destructive as she was.
    • Not to mention leading him to believe she has cooked his dog and fed it to him, at which point he pretty much goes apeshit.
  • Big Fancy House: Too bad they both want it and won't let the other have it.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Roses have the worst ending humanly possible, but their story serves as a serious wake-up call to Gavin which inspires him to fix his own marriage, and he also uses it as a cautionary tale to get his other clients to think long and hard about whether they really want a divorce.
  • Book Ends: The porcelain figurine that began Oliver and Barbara's relationship is the last thing that they fight over. It ends up smashed to bits by Oliver when Barbara refuses to hand it over to him, even when he was trading her everything else for it.
  • Butt-Monkey: Oliver; while both spouses commit horrific acts upon each other, Barbara is clearly more effective and successful in their Escalating War. Pretty much any stand-off they have, Oliver is set up so he is clearly on the losing end.
  • Character Development: Gavin starts off the story as a skirt chaser and, while not a full-on Amoral Attorney, still helps Oliver exploit a legal loophole to stay in the house. In the modern-day segments, he's a happily married man and openly admits his mistakes with Oliver made him a better lawyer.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The chandelier.
    • While thought to be dying in the hospital, Oliver writes Barbara a note with the line "all I am and all I have I owe to you" that she uses against him in the divorce discussing the assets.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: The film starts out with Gavin smoking a cigarette that he had been keeping in a glass case for several years, vowing to never smoke again. As he smokes, he tells a prospective client about ''why'' he took the cigarette out of the glass case to smoke it. Another one of his clients was Oliver Rose, who was in a Divorce Assets Conflict with his wife, Barbara. Said conflict turned nasty, including an attempt by Barbara to seduce Gavin. The stress of having Barbara come on to him and yet restraining himself from giving in stressed Gavin out so much that he immediately opens the glass case to get at the cigarette to smoke it.
  • Closer to Earth: Played around with. It is shown that Oliver's overbearing and unaffectionate treatment of Barbara acts as the starting fuse of the couple's bitter separation. By the point the two finally clash, however, this has turned Barbara into a vindictive and unhinged Bitch in Sheep's Clothing. Oliver, while still a rather unsympathetic self-absorbed Jerkass, maintains some lingering amount of love and sympathy for Barbara even in his dying breath. Barbara, from a very early stage, wants nothing more than the guy to just drop dead.
  • Cool Car: Oliver drives a classic convertible. Which Barbara destroys with her own Monster Truck.
  • Destructo-Nookie: Subverted. Part of the climactic fight ends up with Barbara straddling Oliver, begging him to show her his… "bald avenger". He does, but it doesn't end well for him.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: The movie in a nutshell. From both sides.
    • More consistently, however, the trope usually works a lot more in Barbara's favor than Oliver's.
  • Divorce Assets Conflict: The whole point of the story is the Roses going to very bitter extremes to try to get the better out of the other in the division of assets. Perfectly encapsulated in the film's climax, when Barbara refuses to part with the figurine that Oliver treasures even when Oliver tells her she can have everything else in exchange.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Oliver destroying the porcelain figurine, which brought them together in the first place.
  • Double Standard: Abuse, Female on Male: Oliver is near equally callous to Barbara, but his acts have far less malice. Barbara, however, is far more effective and frequently places him through extreme physical torture. Even when he has been pushed to borderline insanity, he is still on the receiving end for the large part, and any blows he does land are more accidental than anything else. However, seeing as how Oliver deep down still does love her, something Barbara definitely doesn't feel the same way about regarding him, it makes sense why he can't resort to the same level as she can.
  • Eat the Dog: Subverted. After Oliver accidentally runs over her cat, Barbara serves Oliver a paté and heavily implies to him that it's his dog, making him go mad with rage and grief. We see later the dog is alive, but Oliver never finds out.
    • Played horrifically straight in the novel, and the original intention was for the movie to follow suit. However, test audiences reacted badly, so a very brief shot of the dog getting up was added to establish that it was still alive. Notice that other than this two-second shot, there's no indication in the rest of the film that the dog is actually still alive.
  • Everyone Has Standards: When Oliver pisses on the fish, Barbara tells him that she would never humiliate him like this. Also while she implies that the pate she served him is made of his dog, we can see that the dog is alive outside the house, meaning that Barbara, while angry at Oliver for killing, albeit accidentally, her cat, she would have never been so cruel to repay him like this. Averted in the novel and earlier in production, though, in which she was that willing. Also, Oliver shows genuine concern for Barbara when she's apparently hit by a splinter from the porcelain trinket he's just smashed.
  • Evil is Petty: Barbara is definitely driven by this a whole lot more than Oliver. She's the one who thinks it's a good idea to joke about killing a dog and turning him into paté, and that a single little porcelain trinket is worth more than the house and everything in it, if it means hurting Oliver's feelings just a little bit more.
  • Evil Lawyer Joke: "What do you call 500 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? An excellent start."
  • Exact Words:
    Oliver: (holding up one of Barbara's trinkets) Say it's mine and you can have everything in this house.
    Barbara: Okay. It's mine.
  • Falling Chandelier of Doom: At the end, they both hang on it, and then Barbara reveals that she loosened the screws to drop it on Oliver. Chekhov's chandelier indeed.
  • Fatal Flaw: Pride. If both Barbara and Oliver had learned to compromise, they wouldn't have gone down the brutal road they did.
    • Barbara's flaw is Wrath. While Oliver was not the best husband to her, her spiteful and manipulative behavior toward him only threw gasoline into the fire and made the fight much worse than it had to be. Her (pretending) to have served Benny for dinner and loosening the chandelier to drop it on Oliver are the things that led to their deaths.
    • Oliver's flaw is an obsession. If he learned to let go of a woman who couldn't stand him anymore and moved, he wouldn't have suffered so much abuse.
  • The Film of the Book: Believe it or not, the movie was based on a novel of the same name. However, the original novel had none of the movie's dark humor and in fact got kinda creepy toward the end.
  • Flipping the Table: Oliver does this after Barbara implies she made paté out of his dog.
  • Footsie Under the Table: Done early in the movie, during a dinner at the Roses' house, by a female guest to Gavin.
  • Foreshadowing: Oliver and Barbara buys the house after the previous owner died. After Oliver and Barbara accidentally kill each other, the house will be sold off again.
  • Framing Device: Gavin, a divorce lawyer, tells a client the story of the Roses. He convinces his client not to divorce his wife. (A non-greedy lawyer? It could be argued Gavin estimated he wouldn't make much of a profit on this case. Or maybe he's traumatized by what happened to the Roses.)
  • Grey-and-Grey Morality: Neither of the Roses is exactly innocent in events; Barbara goes to extremely spiteful extremes regarding the divorce, but Oliver was a pretty controlling, dismissive, and inattentive husband, all of which fuelled Barbara's resentment and poisoned the relationship.
  • Groin Attack: Oliver tackles Barbara in the attic, then tries to seduce her roughly. She responds by going down on him... then biting his dingus hard enough to make him scream. He's out of the fight for a while afterwards.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Barbara spends quite some time and effort loosening the bolts supporting the enormous chandelier over the foyer. When she accidentally goes over the railing overlooking the hall, she ends up clinging to the chandelier herself. Oliver tries to help her by grabbing onto it, but it's too heavy and pulls him over the edge too. The combined weight is enough to send the chandelier crashing to the floor, killing them both.
  • Lack of Empathy: The pivot of the very venomous breakup. After Barbara shrewdly injures Oliver in sex games out of anger, he is convinced he is dying of a heart attack the following morning after it causes a hernia. Oliver recovers, only to find his wife is not the slightest bit mournful upon hearing of his supposed death (let alone that she indirectly caused it) and is now using his supposed dying will as a plan B to throw him out with literally everything to her name.
    • It should be pointed out that Oliver's doctors tell him that his hernia could not have been caused by being "squeezed between someone's legs".
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: The Aesop delivered by Gavin to his client at the end of the movie, after the Rose couple subverted it to high heaven and refused to let either gain winning ground up to their demise.
  • Mouse Trap: Oliver has a painful encounter with a large amount of mouse traps up in the attic.
  • Murderous Thighs: Barbara Rose grabs her husband in a leg-lock when he's trying to get amorous, squeezing the breath out of him. The next day, the injury leads to a hernia, and results in Oliver believing he's having a fatal heart attack… Which, apparently, inspires him to leave the house to Barbara as his "dying will". She immediately uses it as a legally-binding document against him.
    • It should be pointed out that Oliver's doctors tell him that his hernia could not have been caused by being "squeezed between someone's legs".
  • Oktoberfest: Their housekeeper Susan
  • Only Sane Man: Danny DeVito's character, who urges Oliver to let go and throw in the towel.
  • Pet the Dog: In the end, after they've fallen, chandelier and all, and they both lay dying in the wreckage, Oliver reaches out to his wife to show that he still loves her after all, and dies.
    • Kick the Dog: And Barbara, as her last act, grabs his hand and tosses it away.
    • For what it's worth, Barbara didn't really have the heart to kill and serve Benny. In the final cut at least. In the original cut and the novel itself, yeah, she'd do it.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Both Barbara and Oliver act like spoiled kids fighting over who gets the top bunk, only their fighting causes enormous harm to each other and the house.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Gavin tells Oliver that by not being willing to split the assets and move on, he loses even if he "wins."
  • Revenge Is a Dish Best Served: Oliver humiliates his wife by pissing on the fish she prepared.
  • The Silent Bob: Gavin's named client, who doesn't speak but is still quite expressive in thought and action.
  • Spoof Aesop: In the epilogue, before he gets to the real point of telling his prospective client the Roses' story, Gavin says:
    "Some story, huh? What's the moral? Other than "Dog people should marry dog people and cat people should marry cat people"?
  • Staircase Tumble: Barbara falls down the stairs during one of her fights with Oliver.
  • Table Space: There's a scene of the couple eating dinner while sitting far apart on a stretched-out table.
  • Tantrum Throwing: Barbara smashed Oliver's beloved decorative porcelain against the wall.
  • Tempting Fate: When Barbara tells Oliver she wanted to smash his face in, he offers her to do so. She does. When she is in her truck about to run him over and order him out of his convertible, he tells her, "You're gonna have to kill me." She damn near does.
    • Happens again when Oliver and Barbara are on the chandelier. Gavin arrives to help but just when Oliver says he knew everything would be fine, the chandelier's support wires start to fail.
  • This Is My Side: Oliver thinks it's a great idea to divide the house in "my rooms, her rooms, and neutral areas," even though it's clear Barbara is playing him for a fool. Gavin immediately tells him that it's the worst thing he could possibly do and advises him to move to a hotel ASAP.
  • Unrequited Love: Dead love example. Oliver still loves Barbara and amidst their horrific feud, still wants things to go back to the way they were. However, Barbara wants Oliver out of her life in any way possible.
  • Wham Line: "I want a divorce."
  • X Must Not Win: The driving point of the couple's war, eventually to their own detriment. They refuse to submit the house to the other and slowly drive themselves insane with every petty attempt to destroy the other. Perhaps best exemplified with the Exact Words example above.

Alternative Title(s): The War Of The Roses