Saturday, 29 September 2012

The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

Dir. George Miller
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Cher, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer 

Adapted from a John Updike novel, The Witches of Eastwick focuses on the friendship of three women in a small New England town. Alex Medford (Cher) is a sculptress and widowed single mother. Jane Spofford (Susan Sarandon of Dead Man Walking and Bull Durham) is an uptight divorcee music teacher. Sukie Ridgemont (Michelle Pfeiffer, last seen in Scarface) is a fecund mother-of-six whose husband has left her. The three friends form a self-help society where they bond and bemonan their bad luck whilst getting thoroughly sloshed. One evening, over martinis, they express their fondest wishes for things to change and for a little excitement to come into their lives. They dream of the perfect man. 

The next morning Eastwick is abuzz with the news – the old Lenox Mansion has been bought by an out-of-towner. That out-of-towner is, apparently, a rich New Yorker by the name of Darryl van Horne. One by one the women meet him. One by one they are fascinated by him. And one by one they fall under his spell… 

Darryl injects some excitement into their lives alright. How could he not when he is played by Jack Nicholson? Nicholson doesn’t particularly do subtle acting I’ve always thought. He pours everything into his performances and radiates energy. That is just right for this role. He doesn’t need to be subtle in the character of Darryl van Horne. He needs to be ridiculous and seductive, charming and vengeful. He is, he admits, draping himself over a bed in a silk dressing gown, “just your average horny little devil”. And that is just what he is. As his three lovers take out their jealousy on each other in a comic game of tennis it becomes clear that he has access to powers they have never imagined. Thereafter it is time for a very different foursome… 

The three ladies try to give Jack Nicholson a run for his money – hard when he is convinced that the film is his own personal showcase. I personally think that Michelle Pfeiffer’s wishy-washy Sukie is the weakest of the bunch. She barely does anything. But then again it was Pfeiffer’s first real blockbuster role. Cher proves that she can handle movies just as well as music, thank you very much, as the unofficial leader of the bunch. However it is Susan Sarandon that must take the plaudits as Plain Jane who becomes a flame-haired superslut overnight after some of van Horne’s red-hot fiddling (not a metaphor). No really, he teaches her how to become empassioned through her music. The scene where he is crashing out notes on a piano while an orgasmic Jane furiously plays her cello (not a metaphor), smoke coiling from her bow and the instrument itself finally bursting into flames is a real highlight.  
The witches decided to show Casper who was really in charge
But they cannot compete with Jack. He is at once preposterous and fascinating. The townsfolk agree that he isn’t really handsome (“riveting” is the word used). Alex belittles him for exhibiting every loathsome characteristic of the male personality “and even discovered a few new ones”. He has a ridiculous ratty ponytail. But he exudes sex. There is something feral about him. When he turns to Alex and tells her, flat out, that “I always like a little pussy after lunch” we should laugh him into a corner. But it is Jack Goddammed Nicholson so we don’t. He talks about the power of women and how they can bestow the gift of life: “Nature, birth, rebirth. Cliché? Cliché, sure… but true…” It is unclear whether he really believes in the power of women, or whether he is only telling them what they want to hear to get them into bed. It is possible he is speaking the truth – after all, they brought him to Eastwick in the first place. He is a master of sardonic chuckles and eyebrow-arching glances. 

All things considered, the movie is… okay. It’s enjoyable. Everyone there seems to be having a whale of a time. The special effects are (mostly) good. It is very funny in places. But really, it is just a funny little tale about three women who accidentally conjure up a devil and then have to put him back down again when they realise what they have done. Despite the death of prissy town Selectwoman Felicia (Veronica Cartwright), despite the agonies that Sukie undergoes, it is hard to take van Horne’s evil seriously. This is not a horror story, it is a comedy, and I think the film found it hard to entirely reconcile the two notions. It is like Sex and the City spliced with Rosemary’s Baby. The ending is overly dramatic. Largely, your enjoyment of it will depend on quite how big a fan you are of Jack Nicholson’s gooning. For myself, I thought it got old, quickly. 

What have I learnt about Rhode Island?
Nowhere in the film does it point out – as far as I can see – that Eastwick is in Rhode Island. You can see that it is a New England town, but that is about it. Apparent the original source material – the novel by John Updike – made the Rhode Island setting more explicit. 

What we can see is an almost stereotypical New England town. It has a sea-front location, well-tended village greens and a collection of beautiful white-painted buildings, from the thin-steepled church on the common, to the wooden houses on piers over the sea and rivers, to the Federal-style school. Everyone turns out for school speech day, the most influential person in the community is a ‘Selectwoman’, and the city dates back to 1640. It has a suitably rich history, largely through the Lenoxes, whose mansion van Horne buys. 

Can we go there?
The movie was not shot in Rhode Island either. Updike based Eastwick on the town of Wickford. The 'Eastwick’ seen on screen, however, was really Cohasset, further north in Massachusetts. Cohasset is about an hour south east of Boston. The 1746 First Parish Meeting House was the pretty white church attended by the townsfolk. The Lenox Mansion, home of Darryl van Horne, was Castle Hill on the Crane Estate in Ipswich. Interiors of his grand mansion were filmed elsewhere: the lobby was that of the Citi Performing Arts Center in Boston, for example, and the swimming pool was back on set in Burbank, California.

Overall Rating: 2/5

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