Sunday, May 3, 2009


That old "Jack" magic has us in his spell in the ultimate Jack Nicholson part -- old Scratch himself. He is undisputably the star of THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK, despite formidable competition from his unlikely coven of modern day Rhode Island witches played delightfully by Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon.

When John Updike wrote his risque' 1984 best seller, he was definetely dancing on the edge of antihereo in Daryl van Horne. Screen writer Michael Cristofer compounds the chaos with a beguiling brew of satanic spoof, sexual bickering, monster mash and Gothic slapstick comedy. If Hawthorne were alive and well in the '80s and inclined to caffeine abuse, he might have penned this frantic genre-bender, with its uninhibited exploration of repression's fruits -- political and physical -- with Daryl as devil's advocate to the women's movement. The sly chauvinist is against liberation, unless it's sexual. But he is not above using feminist propaganda to flatter and seduce the trio who inadvertently summoned him. Naturally, they find him irresistible. (Each of them manless and sorely oppressed in Eastwick.)

With its white steepled church and lawns more pristine than AstroTurf, it makes the perfect Puritan theme park. We fly down into this manicured doll town with its Halloween orange trees, aboard a cinematic broomstick, swept up in the fractured fantasy by director George Miller who directs this eccentric fairy tale with his customary flair and adolescent gusto. His proportions are outsized and the mood is demonic Disney. With a sky full of chubby, children's-book clouds and a dance number in an explosion of pink balloons, you think this is how the Devil would romance Mary Poppins -- provided Poppins would not be put off by cherry vomit.

One dark night over Cheez Whiz and martinis, the three women lament the lack of good men, wishing idly for the ideal lover -- "a dark prince, traveling under a curse, on a dark charger." They clink a toast to a thunderclap. And suddenly out of the wet New England woods, something wicked their way comes -- in a speeding black Mercedes with extra running lights and the power to leap potholes. Daryl van Horne, cloven hoofs hidden under his Lakers high-tops, makes his entrance into quaint, colonial Eastwick. He's a supernatural cutup, equal parts blasphemy, brimstone and catnip. Nicholson hasn't frothed like this since he cut loose in The Shining. His Daryl, unlike Devils of yore, arrives in sartorial disarray. He's a reactionary womanizer who makes man's men like Bruce Willis come off like closet quiche-eaters. Curiously, the allegedly independent women Daryl woos are easy catches, more willing even than Stepford Wives.

Cher, is first to succumb, as widowed sculptor Alexandra Medford. All it takes, in fact, is a little empathy. Daryl, wriggling like a kitty, invites Alexandra to join him in his king-size bed in a manner that may not be repeated here. "I appreciate your directness," says Alexandra. "But I am sure you are the most unattractive man I've ever met ... You're not even interesting enough to make me sick." "So which do you want, the bottom or the top?" asks the unflappable Daryl, who immediately mesmerizes her with a speech about macrame' and coffee makers.

Pfeiffer, as a small-town journalist with a half-dozen kids and a husband who deserted her, can't wait to join the magical me'nage. "I'd love to be a woman," whispers Daryl. "Look what you can do with your bodies ... make babies, make milk to feed the babies." We might gag at this ourselves, but Pfeiffer's Sukie Ridgemont is taken in, being inordinately proud of her fecundity. Sukie was the beginning of more substantial parts for Pfeiffer, who is exquisite and sweetly intent.

But it's Sarandon who makes the greatest impression in her transition from retiring wallflower to ravishing vixen. As recently divorced cellist Jane Spofford, she fleshes out the cartoon role as a repressed redhead who gives herself to the Devil in a smoking, bow-stroking musical interlude. After a duet, the sheet music bursts into flames, the cello burns and the lovers are equally consumed. From then on, Jane gives up her glasses and takes to wearing little girls' socks with her high heels. And we all know what that signifies.

But almost all are upstaged by the insanely underrated Veronica Cartwright, a former child star who plays the thirty-ish Felicia Gabriel, a prophetic pillar of the community who senses the Devil's presence, becoming ever more paranoid as the merriment progresses. It's a prissy part that's even harder to play sympathetically than Nicholson's, but Cartwright does so handily. She's terrific. And recent Academy Award nominee Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) is also a small marvel as her long-suffering husband.

The battle between the sexes escalates and the fantasies get nasty as we near the frenzied finale that finds Van Horne, covered in chicken feathers and pink slime, hilariously demanding of a congregation of Eastwick Christians if "God knew what he was doing when he created woman? You don't think God makes mistakes?" A moment of unmistakable brilliance!

Some purists will say that the film has very little to do with Updike's original novel, and they would be right. (The script was rewritten by award-winning playwright Cristopher on a daily basis.) But all that is small potatos when one views the final product. With outstanding performances, amazing art direction and cinematography, the film holds up as fun, diverting entertainment with a standout over-the-top Nicholson (in a role he was born to play!) There is also a lush score by John WIlliams that captures with amazing dexterity, both the witchy playfulness of it's subject and just the right feel of a small New England town.

This film was a big hit in theaters during the summer of 1987 and deserves to be seen again and again. One can only hope that Warner Brothers has plans to honor The Witches of Eastwick with a well deserved 2 -disc special edition that features a magnificent pristine print and enough bonus extras to equal the pull-out-all-the-stops finale of this marvelous film.

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