December 18, 1989 12:00 PM

Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner

What Dr. Strangelove was to nuclear war, this grim comedy is to divorce: It never gets around to advocating an outright ban, but it sure suggests a cautious approach.

War of the Roses is also very funny, and not just because it provides its audiences with a rare opportunity to laugh and gnash their teeth at the same time.

Douglas and Turner, playing the couple whose idyllic marriage takes a long time to break down before it explodes, implodes and generally disintegrates, seem more and more like the Tracy and Hepburn of the ’80s. They conduct a clinic in timing. Watch Turner, thinking briefly after Douglas tells her he forgot to sign the passionate “I thank merciful God for you” farewell note he wrote to her while he lay dying (he thought) in the hospital. “I’m sure,” she tells him slowly, “they would have told me who the note was from.”

Director Danny DeVito and screenwriter Michael (TV’s Taxi) Leeson compound the comedy with a succession of subtle, carefully constructed jokes. A running gag about the couple’s differing tastes in pets is introduced by Douglas taking a casually malicious swat at the family cat. A couple of scenes later, Turner is teasing the family dog by pretending she is going to toss him scraps of meat, which she proceeds to give to the cat.

DeVito, telling the couple’s story in flashback, also plays Douglas’s law partner and divorce lawyer, who persuades the couple to live in the family home while they settle who is going to get what. DeVito, Leeson and the two stars walk a precariously thin line, once in a while dipping a toe into the silly/brutal extremes they’re flirting with. This is clearly a cartoon, though, so when Turner flattens Douglas’s cherished roadster by running over it with her truck—while hubby is inside—the violence never seems off-putting.

It helps that the film is really about something. Turner’s disillusionment is related to the fact that Douglas has treated her as an afterthought—competent only to be a wife and mother. Douglas, on the other hand, is the victim of Turner’s newfound self-obsession.

While it never gets didactic, the film seems to be decrying this kind of marital behavior. Given its unexpected ending (some will find it unsatisfying too), maybe it is saying something too about how to combat divorce in our society. Or maybe the message is the more direct one voiced by DeVito: ” ‘Civilized divorce’ is a contradiction in terms.” (R)

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