The film follows a wealthy couple with a seemingly perfect marriage. When their marriage begins to fall apart, material possessions become the center of an outrageous and bitter divorce battle.
This is the third film to co-star Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, and Danny DeVito, after Romancing the Stone and its sequel, The Jewel of the Nile. DeVito directed the film, which also had producer James L. Brooks and actor Dan Castellaneta working on a project outside of The Simpsons. The opening title sequence was created by Saul Bass.
In both the novel and the film, the married couple’s family name is Rose, and the title is an allusion to the battles between the Houses of York and Lancaster (English Civil War) during the Late Middle Ages.
Lawyer Gavin d’Amato is in his office discussing a divorce case with a taciturn client. Noticing the man’s determination to divorce his wife, Gavin decides to tell him the story of one of his clients, a personal friend of his.
Eighteen years earlier, Oliver Rose, a student at Harvard Law School, meets Barbara at an auction on Nantucket, where they bid on the same antique. Oliver chats Barbara up and they become friends. When Barbara misses her ferry home, the two end up spending the night together. Eventually, the two marry and have two children and settle in Washington D.C. Over the years, the Roses grow richer, and Barbara finds an old mansion whose owner has recently died, and purchases it. However, cracks seem to be forming in the family, such as the children being overweight due to Barbara spoiling them with treats. As Oliver becomes a successful partner in his law firm, Barbara, who was a doting and loving wife early in the marriage, appears to grow restless in her life with Oliver, and begins to dislike him immensely.
Oliver, for his part, cannot understand what he has done to earn Barbara’s contempt, oblivious to his controlling, self-centered, indifferent and generally dismissive behavior toward her. When Oliver believes he is suffering a heart attack the day after an argument, Barbara does not show any remorse or concern for his well-being, and ultimately admits that she no longer loves him and wants a divorce. Oliver accepts, but tension arises between the two during a meeting with Barbara’s lawyer when Barbara makes it clear that she wants the house and everything in it, even using Oliver’s final love note to her (which he had written in the hospital) as leverage against him in their legal battle. Oliver hires Gavin on a retainer as his legal counsel. Barbara initially throws Oliver out of the house, but he moves back in after discovering a legal loophole that allows him to stay while the outcome of the divorce is pending. As a result, Barbara immediately begins plotting to remove Oliver herself, even going as far as trying to seduce Gavin into siding with her instead.
In an effort to compromise, Oliver offers his wife a considerable sum of cash in exchange for the house, but Barbara still refuses to settle. Realizing that his client is in a no-win situation, Gavin advises Oliver to end the conflict by leaving Barbara with the house and starting a new life for himself. Oliver responds by firing Gavin and decides to take matters into his own hands.
At this point, Oliver and Barbara begin spiting and humiliating each other in every way possible, even in front of friends and potential business clients. Both begin destroying the house furnishings; the stove, furniture, Staffordshire ornaments, and dishware. In addition, Oliver accidentally runs over Barbara’s cat in the driveway. When Barbara finds out, she retaliates by trapping Oliver inside his private sauna, where he nearly succumbs to heatstroke and dehydration.
While the kids are away at college, Oliver eventually calms down and attempts to make peace with Barbara over an elegant dinner, but finally reaches his breaking point when Barbara serves him a paté which she implies was made from his dog (which turns out to be a bluff). Oliver physically attacks Barbara, who flees into the attic. Oliver boards up the house to prevent Barbara from escaping, while Barbara loosens the chandelier to drop on Oliver. When their German housekeeper Susan pays them an unexpected visit during the night, she senses something is terribly wrong and discreetly contacts Gavin for help. By the time Gavin arrives, Oliver and Barbara’s quarrel has culminated in the two hanging dangerously from the insecure chandelier. During this time, Oliver admits to Barbara that despite their hardships, he always loved her, but Barbara does not respond. Before Gavin can come inside with a ladder, the chandelier’s support cable fails, leaving only the electrical wiring to the fuse box supporting the couple and the chandelier. Despite Oliver’s conviction that each wire can hold ‘at least two hundred pounds’, the wire eventually fails as well, sending Oliver, Barbara, and the chandelier crashing violently to the floor. In his final breaths, Oliver reaches out to touch Barbara’s shoulder, but Barbara uses her last ounce of strength to knock his hand away, firmly asserting her feelings for him even in death.
Finishing his story, Gavin presents his client with two options: either proceed with the divorce and face a horrific bloodbath in court, or go home to his wife to settle their differences properly. The client chooses the latter, and Gavin, satisfied, packs up his office to go home to his own family.
- Michael Douglas as Oliver Rose
- Kathleen Turner as Barbara Rose
- Danny DeVito as Gavin D’Amato
- Marianne Sägebrecht as Susan
- Dan Castellaneta as Gavin’s client
- Sean Astin as 17-year-old Josh Rose
- Trenton Teigen as 10-year-old Josh Rose
- Heather Fairfield as 17-year-old Carolyn Rose
- G.D. Spradlin as Harry Thurmont
- Peter Donat as Jason Larrabee
- David Wohl as Dr. Gordon
- Shirley Mitchell as Mrs. Dewitt