The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
Movie Reviews - W
War of the Roses, The
1989, 20th Century Fox, Rated R

Michael Douglas
Kathleen Turner
Danny DeVito

Directed by Danny DeVito
Written by Michael Leeson from a novel by Warren Adler

Danny DeVito followed up his feature film directorial debut -- 1987's Throw Momma from the Train -- with another black comedy that was a big success at the box office. On one level, The War of the Roses is a biting satire of Hollywood's take on what the 1980s were all about -- Greed. Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner play Oliver and Barbara Rose, a WASP-ish couple whose divorce turns nasty when neither will give up their dream house. The pair first meet at an auction where, tellingly, they compete fiercely for an item. They marry, and while Oliver becomes a successful attorney, Barbara raises the kids and turns their house into a perfect home. But trouble percolates beneath the surface: Oliver is a workaholic with a lack of commitment to wife and family, while Barbara feels she has wasted the best years of her life as a housewife. A couple with so little emotional investment might have had a relatively amicable divorce, except that neither will give up their dream home. The lengths to which they go to drive the other out are sometimes hilarious, sometimes horrifying.
Critics of The War of the Roses claimed that neither of the main characters were sympathethic enough to appeal to an audience. They aren't supposed to be sympathetic, though, and the film's ending, which shocked many viewers, wasn't supposed to be tragic, but rather was to be viewed as comeuppance for two people who thought only of themselves. Even the two Rose children are of little consequence in the grander schemes of things -- both Oliver and Barbara are much more concerned about possession of the house than they are about custody of the kids. The casting of Douglas and Turner was inspired -- the film confirms what those who'd seen them in Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile already knew: that there was tremendous chemistry between these actors. Douglas, who has a made a career out of playing less-than-sympathetic roles, proved again in this film what a consummate actor he is; even though Oliver is an arrogant, mean-spirited cad you can't take your eyes off him, and can't wait to see what he'll do in response to Barbara's provocations.
DeVito's dark comedies aren't for everyone -- they're an acquired taste -- but in every case, and no matter how vicious and bitter the humor in them may seem, they are redeemed by a moral. In The War of the Roses, that moral is brought home in the final scene when, after dissuading a prospective client from pursuing a divorce with the "tragic" tale of the Roses, DeVito's lawyer picks up the phone and tells his wife that he loves her and is finally coming home. Happiness requires commitment to other people, not to material things. It's a message that goes unheeded by too many in this day and time.

Eighties Club rating: ***

US box office: $83.7 million
US release date: 12.8.89

Who's That Girl
1987, Warner Bros., Rated PG

Griffin Dunne
John McMartin

Directed by James Foley
Written by Andrew Smith & Ken Finkleman

In my review of Blind Date I pointed out that by turning down the role played by Kim Basinger, Madonna exhibited an uncanny ability to make the right career moves. I still believe that's true -- even after watching Who's That Girl. This screwball comedy just makes it a bit more difficult to defend my admiration for Madonna's instincts. She plays Nikki Finn, a two-bit thief who's spent four years in prison on a bum rap, and when she gets out she's determined to acquire evidence that will clear her -- evidence locked away in a bank safety deposit box somewhere in the Big Apple. She has the key, but she doesn't know which bank. Along comes Louden Trott (Griffin Dunne), a rather dull, straight-laced tax attorney who has been prevailed upon by his boss and future father-in-law, Simon Worthington (John McMartin) to make sure Nikki gets on a bus to Philadelphia. Along the way, Louden must also pick up the wedding rings -- he's getting hitched in a couple of days -- and a live specimen of a rare big cat species, the latter to be delivered to an eccentric multi-millionaire. Needless to say, Nikki and Louden careen from one misadventure to another, and along the way they fall in love. What a surprise! And guess who the villain is? The man responsible for the crime that put Nikki behind bars? Oh come on, you can figure it out!
Who's That Girl was slammed by critics upon release, and even Madonna later admitted it was her least favorite work. She has only herself to blame. The problem with the film is that it's strictly average material in every respect, filled with tired old cliches, and the only thing that could have rescued it was a brilliant performance by its star. Unfortunately, Madonna doesn't deliver. While no one can deny that she has screen presence to spare, her characterization of Nikki Finn as a shrill, ditzy, manic, blonde Betty Boop is too over-the-top. In fact, it becomes downright annoying after awhile. The plot is so contrived and disjointed that one wonders if they made it all up as they went along. Griffin Dunne (son of the writer Dominick Dunne) seems drawn to offbeat material -- An American Werewolf in London (1981) and Amazon Women on the Moon (1987), for instance -- but this material was so wacky not even he could get a handle on it, as is evident by his uneven performance. The romance between Nikki and Louden, while entirely predictable, might have at least given us an opportunity to see another, more appealing, side of Nikki Dunn; but it's presented in a very perfunctory manner -- a few wide-eyed glances exchanged between the two leads and we're off to another round of often-moronic sight gags. Still, it is Madonna, and for that reason Who's That Girl gets one more star than it probably deserves.

Eighties Club rating: **

US box office: $7.3 million
US release date: 8.7.87

"Who's That Girl?" Madonna
"Causing A Commotion," Madonna
"Look Of Love," Madonna
"Step By Step," Club Nouveau
"Best Thing Ever," Scritti Politti
"Can't Stop," Madonna
(& more; Warner Bros.)

1986, Warner Bros., Rated R

Goldie Hawn
Swoosie Kurtz
James Keach

Directed by Michael Ritchie
Written by Ezra Sacks

Molly McGrath (Goldie Hawn) has always wanted to coach a football team, and she's certainly qualified to do so. Thing is, she's a woman, so her aspirations are the subject of derision by the good ol' boys who run high school sports. Just to get rid of her, they give Molly a seemingly impossible assignment: to turn things around for the hapless team of a tough inner-city high school. Before she can transform them into winners she has to earn the players' respect, which she accomplishes by beating them all in an endurance run. And she's got to lure the star quarterback away from a life of crime on the streets. Her dedication to the Wildcats leads to trouble on the home front, too -- her ex-husband (James Keach) isn't thrilled when he finds out his little girl is hanging out with the streetwise jocks on the team. But, with the encouragement of her best friend Verna (Swoosie Kurtz) and Principal Edwards (Nipsey Russell), who wants his school to exhibit some esprit d'corps, Molly perseveres and, eventually, triumphs.
Wildcats director Michael Ritchie had explored this same material in 1976 with The Bad News Bears, and he also helmed 1978's Semi-Tough. In both of those movies he had us rooting for the misfits on the team. But this film focuses exclusively on Molly McGrath; the players are never developed beyond the usual stereotypes. And that's a shame, because several talented actors and soon-to-be stars like Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson are on the roster. Still, Goldie Hawn is her usual cute and charming self, and pulls out all the stops to make Molly both tough and vulnerable at the same time. There's not much drama here -- we all know how it's going to end, with Molly and her Wildcats beating impossible odds to win it all in the "Big Game." But it's always fun to watch professionals like Hawn and Ritchie at work, so while The Bad News Bears might have had more heart, Wildcats is not a total waste of time.

Eighties Club rating: **

US box office: $26.3 million
US release date:2.14.86

Working Girl
1988, 20th Century Fox, Rated R

Melanie Griffith
Harrison Ford
Sigourney Weaver

Directed by Mike Nichols
Written by Kevin Wade

If you were to pick ten films that best represented what movie-making in the Eighties was all about, Working Girl would have to be on the list. Melanie Griffith's Tess McGill is one of the decade's screen heroines, a naive and insecure secretary in New York's financial district who dreams of making it big in that fast-paced, cutthroat world. She doesn't have an MBA, she doesn't wear the right clothes, she doesn't have "serious hair," but she does have really good ideas -- one of which is stolen by her boss, Katherine Parker (Sigourney Weaver.) While Katherine is away on a ski trip Tess learns of the theft, and masquerades as an executive to prove she can put together a deal that would save a company from foreign takeover. In the process she meets and falls in love with Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford), a dealmaker who just happens to be Katherine's boyfriend. Tess is on the verge of realizing her dream when Katherine returns to steal the credit.
Will Tess win out in the end? Will she get the recognition she deserves, and the man she loves? Is this a country where hard work and good ideas transcend class distinctions and stereotypes? Does the Statue of Liberty, a recurring motif in the film, stand for a society where a person is limited only by the scope of her dreams? The answer is a resounding yes in this warm, uplifting romantic comedy, perfectly crafted by director Mike Nichols and writer Kevin Wade. Griffith is just right for the role of Tess. Weaver is a delight to watch as the villanous Katherine. And Harrison Ford gives a solid and carefully understated performance as Jack, making sure he augments rather than overshadows Griffith in their all-important scenes together. Alec Baldwin and Joan Cusack (John's sister) shine in their supporting roles as Tess McGill's old boyfriend and best friend, both of whom in their own way tempt Tess to give up her dream and accept her station in life. Look for Kevin Spacey (of American Beauty fame) in a small role as a sleazy exec who offers Tess a job to get her into bed.
Working Girl earned six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress (Griffith.) Carly Simon's stirring "Let the River Run" won an Academy Award for Best Song. This is a must-see film that is not only pure Eighties but also endowed with a timeless message that makes it an instant classic. You'll laugh, you'll cry, and you'll cheer Tess McGill in her pursuit of the American Dream.
Eighties Club rating: ****

US box office: $64 million
US release date: 12.23.88

"Let The River Run," Carly Simon
"I'm So Excited," Pointer Sisters
"The Lady In Red," Chris DeBurgh
"Straight From The Heart," Gap Band
(& more; Arista)

Academy Awards
Best Music, Song (Carly Simon, "Let The River Run")

Golden Globes
Best Picture-Comedy/Musical
Best Original Song (Carly Simon)
Best Actress (Melanie Griffith)
Best Supporting Actress (Sigourney Weaver)

Grammy Awards
Best Song/Motion Picture or TV
 (Carly Simon, "Let The River Run")