The Witches of Eastwick

The Witches of Eastwick arrives boasting a strange brew of talent: The source is a John Updike novel, the director is the man behind the Mad Max movies, the stars are among the most interesting available, the cinematographer (Vilmos Zgismond) is the best in the universe, the music is by the guy who did Jaws.

Sometimes you collect odd talents like this and the mix is explosive. And other times the spell just doesn’t take.

The early scenes in Witches build some anticipation. In a small town in New England, as eerie storm clouds gather, three lonely single women (Cher, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer) gather for their weekly martini party and wonder: Where is the dark stranger who will come and change their lives?

He’s here. And it turns out that the dark stranger is in fact the darkest stranger of all, the devil himself (Jack Nicholson). This fellow buys a brooding old mansion above town and sets about to seduce each of the women in turn.

The movie doesn’t pussyfoot or tease; we’re never in doubt that Nicholson does represent the supernatural, and that he has some weird plan in mind for the three women. Perhaps this blatancy is part of the problem. So Nicholson’s the devil; so what? Will the movie ever reveal what his point is in showing up in town?

Well, the film has a lot of ideas on the subject, and almost none of them become clear in the course of two hours. It’s all got something to do with what men think of women, and what women think of men. Nicholson has a big speech in a church near the end, when he delivers a sermon on whether God made a mistake when he created women. It’s impossible to know if this is intended as a joke or a pathetic harangue, and the movie up to this point has been such a shambles that it’s hard to care.

George Miller’s Mad Max movies show him to be a terrific, visceral director, but he can’t find the key to this material, and Michael Cristofer’s script makes hash out of whatever post-feminist attitudes the story is trying to explore. And there’s a complete failure to incorporate a character (Veronica Cartwright) who tries to mount a witch hunt against the women who are suddenly spending their nights at Nicholson’s mansion.

The supernatural business is especially awkward. Maybe it’s easier to get away with in a novel, but the special-effects sequences seem to trample over the New England delicacy of the material.

Some of the outrageousness is fun – Nicholson clad in flowing pink and white togs, out to buy pistachio ice cream for his “girls,” while they form a voodoo doll to send him away. Sarandon is nice to watch as a staid music teacher liberated under Nicholson’s fiery musical advice. Cher has one of her finest moments after Nicholson propositions here; she turns him down, and then he spins a lengthy seduction speech that strikes at the heart of her loneliness. Cher’s face stays in the center of the frame throughout, registering his words, and it’s a superb scene for her.

And it’s yet another example of an actress growing while performing opposite Jack Nicholson. He’s playing broadly here, and interestingly embodying a lot of male rage. Unfortunately, we’ve seen too much of this performance before – notably and much more coherently in The Shining. I’m sure he was the first choice for this role – those devilish eyebrows demand it – but America’s most fascinating living actor can’t quite make it something new.

First published in The Herald, June 1987

But what did I think of Michelle Pfeiffer? Also, according to IMDb, Bill Murray was actually the first choice for Nicholson’s role. Apparently there were a bunch of different endings attempted (none of them Updike’s, I assume), which jibes with the rest of this scattered movie. It feels like the kind of “package” that was a near-weekly event at this time in Hollywood, a hollow experience all the way around. Richard Jenkins is also in this movie; the production designer was Polly Platt.

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