The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

"Women: a mistake? Or did He do it to us on purpose?"

When you hear the premise of The Witches of Eastwick, you think it will be a satire. And, indeed, the script is broadly satire-shaped. But it is distinctly not a satire, at least in the sense that it has nothing specific, incisive, or subversive to say about any of the topics it is depicting. It doesn’t have anything to say at all, in fact. It’s a silly, horny romp that dances along playfully until it hits a climax, shows off some nifty special effects, and then ends. It is George Miller’s fourth feature-length film and his first non-Mad Max outing, and it both breaks new ground from his road action series and overlaps with them. It is, of course, totally different in genre and surface layer and setting. But I could really feel that it shared a creator with the Mad Maxes. Like those movies, The Witches of Eastwick brings freewheeling, low-exposition sense of worldbuilding and character development. It also offers an almost whimsical lack of coherency that matches his dystopian action trilogy.

The story takes place in a cozy New England town named Eastwick, where three single and sexually frustrated women are friends. They are the sculptor Alex (Cher), the music teacher Jane (Susan Sarandon), and the newspaper columnist Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer). They have various romantic and childbearing histories, and all are the subject of local gossip. Married men around town, all losers, can’t keep their wandering eyes (and occasionally their wandering hands) off of them, so the trio are widely scorned by the jealous Eastwick wives.

The three bond over wine and junk food every Thursday night, complaining mostly about men. (Despite having three women leads and no romantic interest characters until the end of the first act, I do not think The Witches of Eastwick passes the Bechdel test.) Then, something strange happens to them: They begin unwittingly influencing the world through witch magic they accidentally cast together. Their weekly hangouts become an unintentional coven gathering. They cause a rainstorm when a boorish principal is making a speech. And then, one night, they do something much more dangerous: Without realizing it, they conjure “the ideal man” with a list of wishes of how he’d behave and how big his penis would be. One problem: They forgot to specify that he shouldn’t be The Devil.

Sure enough, Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson) moves into town shortly thereafter, occupying a creepy old mansion on a hill. Like Voldemort, people around town have trouble even saying his name. Before long, he crosses paths with each of Alex, Jane, and Sukie — first seducing each individually, then cavorting with them as a collective. The polycule arrangement goes swimmingly at first, until it doesn’t, and Van Horne engages in voodoo warfare with the witches.

There really are a lot of places Miller could have injected the story with some satiric content, and maybe if you squint you’ll find something, but I didn’t. Some of the potential hooks include: the sexual mores of an American small town; the hypocrisy and cruelty of the gossip circle; the dual-edged sword of sexual liberation and promiscuity; the danger and power of female sexuality in a puritanical culture; the ways men manipulate women and vice versa; etc. All of that stuff is right there, practically on the surface, and Miller has absolutely no time for any of it. For him, The Witches of Eastwick is an impish game. Get that social commentary out of here. He gets his jollies with more visceral fun. For him, it is both the means AND the ends for, e.g., Veronica Cartwright to shout “dildo!” at the top of her lungs in the middle of a crowded church, then projectile vomit red goo all over the priest.

Between this and The Bonfire of the Vanities, I’m convinced that I could write a more incisive and well-structured screenplay than Michael Cristofer, who gets the credit for loosely adapting a John Updike novel. (And I haven’t fired up my copy of Final Draft in about 12 years.) It’s a half-baked pile of incompatible scenes and ideas. Whether Miller himself did a pass on the script, I’m not sure; it certainly feels like his work in cadence and Australian-style banter.

It is tempting to call The Witches of Eastwick a “live-action cartoon,” but this would not be quite right. It would suggest an orchestrated frenzy of energy, but the entire structure and purpose of the film is undisciplined. It’s not the steady, escalating anarchy of fellow ‘80s movies The ‘Burbs or Return of the Living Dead. Nor is it subversive; it’s too apathetic about any sort of philosophical mission to be a screaming bit of punk rock like you might expect from a visionary weirdo cultural outsider like Miller. It is, instead, a messy victim of slapdash structure and tonal flow. In this regard, it matches the original Mad Max, but for that one, Miller’s debut, I at least found some synergy in the spit-and-bubble gum production with the scruffy story and frequent tonal fluctuations.

Where The Witches of Eastwick shines, and nearly gets to a recommendation, is on the strength of a few individual sequences. There’s an absolutely wonderful fancy party scene inexplicably scored to “Nessun Dorma” and featuring ten thousand pink balloons, shimmering like soap bubbles. A montage shows the cast dancing around on serving carts and hanging from chandeliers. There’s also an all-time Cher monologue in response to Jack Nicholson flexing on king-size bed muttering about “pussy after lunch.” One of the last and best scenes in the film has Nicholson delivering some of his funniest and grossest physical comedy of his entire career as he rants and raves about God creating women to a silent, baffled church crowd.

The cast, too, is something special: You couldn’t come up with a better fit for a deranged, animalistic sex demon than late-’80s Jack Nicholson, especially when he’s got that grody little ponytail. He chews through all the material that is designed specifically to be chewed through. Sarandon, Cher, and Pfeiffer are all special in their own ways: Sarandon’s hair is a ‘do for the history books, Cher stakes yet another “underrated” and “undercast” claim with a funny turn full of presence, and Pfeiffer reminds us why she was synonymous with “sexy” around the turn of 1990. It’s a wondrously beautiful and engaging trio that could have benefited from sharper drawn portraits rather than the same-ish characters the screenplay gives them. With only a few exceptions, you could replace the dialogue of one of Alex, Jane, and Sukie with another in any given scene and it would work just as well. That’s a bad sign.

What it boils down to is that I don’t know how or why I would try to convince someone to watch this movie. It’s not quite funny enough to be a comedy. It’s got moments, but it’s not unhinged or chaotic enough to be paired with other ‘80s slices of batshit anarchy. If it had more of a feminist bent, it might stand out as a work of goofy gender upheaval, but it really can’t decide whether it even likes its women, nor does it give them nearly enough to do. I feel a little disingenuous rating it lower than Mad Max; it’s probably a better movie overall, and certainly one I’d be more excited to rewatch than Miller’s debut. But I just can’t give it a passing it grade. It should be great, but the deflating sense of wasted potential and aimlessness weigh it down.

Is It Good?

Nearly Good (4/8)

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