Times Film Critic

“The role he was born to play” was a flaming ad line in the dear old days of movie hype. And watching Jack Nicholson snort, wheeze, leer, letch, purr, growl, pout, pitch fits and masticate his way through “The Witches of Eastwick”--the devil come to present-day Rhode Island--it’s enough to make you believe in acting predestination.

Under Australian director George Miller (“Mad Max”), “The Witches of Eastwick” (citywide) begins so promisingly. It has such smashing separate moments, so succulent a cast and so interesting a premise that watching it crumble into stomach-turning crudeness and “Poltergeist”-scale special effects is deeply painful.

Three devoted Eastwick friends, sculptor Alexandra Medford (Cher), cellist and music teacher Jane Spofford (Susan Sarandon) and journalist Sukie Ridgemont (Michelle Pfeiffer), all previously married, all currently single, decide, over their ritual Thursday-night martinis, that “a tall dark prince traveling under a curse” might be just what they need to shake up the single life in a New England town.


With the clink of their glasses, thunder roars. And into this staid village bursts Daryl Van Horne (Nicholson)--single, eccentric, impossibly rich and lustful beyond their wildest dreams. He’s the tall dark prince. The curse is this botched and bandaged script that playwright Michael Cristofer has made by turning John Updike’s novel inside out and upside down.

The women were the focus of the novel, all three jointly, separately and joyously witches, using their powers consciously but in mostly minor ways (a broken string of pearls, a sudden storm as a means of revenge). They were egged on by Van Horne’s presence to far more serious mischiefs--terminal illnesses and sudden “accidental” deaths, the worst of which grew out of jealousy when Van Horne took up with another woman, the slightly younger Jennifer.

And more than once, Updike suggested that the witches’ manifestations were a metaphor for the Walpurgisnacht of the Vietnam era in which the book was set.

Somewhere in the hierarchy of this film’s production, it was decided that the women must be wonderingly ignorant of their “gifts” until Van Horne’s arrival. It’s a far more innocent stance for these three beauties--and far less powerful.

“Witches” is now cast in the shape of a sexual relationship, times three. Attraction; seduction; slow-mo, goofy rapture when all is going well; bumpy letdown when it is not; disintegration and denouement. Jennifer has been expunged; the focus of everything is the pony-tailed Van Horne, who knows each woman’s weak spot and how best to besiege it. And a richly vulgar sitcom ending has been stuck on after the obligatory--and shockingly poor--Industrial Light & Magic special-effects blowout.

Cher’s Alexandra is the first to be treated to the devilish Van Horne seduction rap, the most outrageously arrogant come-on since hunchbacked Richard III seduced the widow of the king he had just killed--as she led her husband’s funeral cortege. As Van Horne lolls on his Borgia bed, proposing a mid-afternoon quickie that Alexandra must “pay for with her soul,” his blunt and charmless dialogue is not the movie’s best. It is so crude that when she rounds on him, calling him physically repulsive, vulgar, insensitive, unintelligent and smelly, you cheer for Cher, even as she is propelled toward the bed.

Next is the luring of the musically inclined Jane. For this, Van Horne brings his violin and woos her while Itzhak Perlman takes over the strings, and the dialogue is by-the-book Updike. (Director Miller’s staging, however, is unconscionably broad and slapstick.) By the time we get to the sumptuous Sukie, the sloe-eyed mother of six, the writing simply runs out of gas, a terrible shame since the presence of Pfeiffer makes the dreamy, intuitive Sukie a warm, irresistible character.


But before long, all three are the movie makers’ vision of working witches: Cosmo cover girls with Diana Ross pin-on hair, doing Van Horne’s bidding. From a souffle, “Witches” becomes a botch, yet with this cast it’s such a seductive botch you can’t take your eyes from it. Not, that is, until the effects get out of hand. Then we’re treated to a projectile vomiting scene that makes “Stand by Me’s” pie-eating gross-out or “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life” food-spewing scene look like PTL fare. Poor Veronica Cartwright is the victim, as a rich, repressed prude, the one person in town who understands what Van Horne is up to and who pays for it, monumentally.

The film has come totally unglued by this time. But there’s always the shameless Nicholson to distract us. Wearing an outrageously inspired set of threads and headgear, waggling those circumflex eyebrows like semaphores and water-skiing over Van Horne’s most scabrous dialogue, Nicholson is the movie’s magnet. (The witty clothes are by Aggie Guerard Rodgers.)

Whatever the movie’s failings--and they are monumental--for the moment in which the devil throws the definitive post-Freudian male fit, his face screwed up in awful self-pity, his rigid legs striking the floor like drumsticks, howling that all he wants is what any man wants--his shirts ironed!--”The Witches of Eastwick” is worth all we must endure.

It also has elegant technical underpinnings, from Polly Platt’s solidly fine production designs to cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s capturing of New England at its lowering best. And there are scenes like Miller’s staging of post-coital high jinks, the Van Horne mansion filled with a charity ball’s worth of pinky-silver balloons, with all four gliding giddily through them, that make you wish the rest of the film worked as beautifully.


A Warner Bros. Pictures release of a Guber-Peters Co. production of a Kennedy Miller film. Producers Neil Canton, Peter Guber, Jon Peters. Executive producers Rob Cohen, Don Devlin. Director George Miller. Screenplay Michael Cristofer based on John Updike’s novel. Camera Vilmos Zsigmond. Editors Richard Francis-Bruce, Hubert C. De La Bouillerie. Costumes Aggie Guerard Rodgers. Music John Williams. Production design Polly Platt, art direction Mark Mansbridge, set decorator Joe D. Mitchell. Sound Art Rochester. With Jack Nicholson, Cher, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, Veronica Cartwright, Richard Jenkins, Keith Jochim, Carel Struycken.

MPAA-rated: R (persons under 17 must be accompanied by parent or adult guardian).

Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.