Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Witches of Eastwick / *** (1987)

The solution to enduring the absurdity that is “The Witches of Eastwick” involves distancing yourself from any measure of logic. Here is a movie that invites an explosion of disbelief, assembled from pieces of a reality that looks as if it might have been plausible in the early stages. But to gaze at the screen any longer than a moment’s notice is to find the New England locales, the happy faces and the passive daily routines to be the cloak surrounding a supernatural fantasy – and a ludicrous one at that. In a way, George Miller depends on our trust in his ability to shed a light of purpose; after “Mad Max” made him a cool commodity in the eyes of nerd culture, it became obvious that he could make a long and successful career out of playing against convention. And somehow he manages to sustain that prospect even here, in a film that audaciously asks us to believe characters played by Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer can not only dream up the same ideal love interest, but that each of them would be ok sharing him at a mansion just outside of town with little sense of jealousy or insecurity.

His arrival during a stormy night is not serendipitous. The early scenes create an awareness in the audience of the collective talents of the three women, who are devoted friends co-existing in the shadow of failed relationships. While the title is a giveaway, they lack a knowledge of their remarkable power, which is emphasized further as they daydream about a storm disrupting an outdoor gathering before it literally blows in from out of nowhere. That night, discussing their past failures in love, they muse over all the things they desire in a man… and unconsciously seem to create one who encompasses the key qualities. Slowly but gradually the townsfolk discuss their newest resident as a charming personality, although his purchase of the Lennox mansion does not sit well with Felicia (Veronica Cartwright), the local religious zealot, who fears for the safety of the rare birds living on the property. Still, an intrigue persistently follows. The three leads always seem to miss an opportunity to meet him. No one can remember his name. He gestures from a distance to retain their interest, and eventually they catch sight of an ordinary-looking stranger in the back row of a local concert. Who he is may not be as important as what feelings he seems to instill on others just by being in the room.

The casting is almost strategic in underscoring the prospect. Jack Nicholson is not a conventionally attractive man, but his magnetism and charisma are ironclad; it becomes easy to see, early on, just why any number of women may be attracted to his voracious bravado. Just watch his early interactions with Cher, who is equal parts mystified and intrigued by this overpowering presence. They have lunch together in a scene where she is left with a very unflattering portrait of a snarky self-promoter, although that is clearly his intent; later, after showing her his house, he comes on so strong that it is clearly a maneuver to gratify her position, just long enough for him to tear down her defenses and hone in on the sadness lurking underneath. Miller films this exchange in a long close-up that shows her face gradually erode into something heartbreaking, and Nicholson’s monologue, while not cruel, is pointed and invasive, as if he has known her painfully better than she knows herself.

A lot of the early half of “The Witches of Eastwick” plays this way, because we must accept this man as brilliantly charismatic and perceptive; to negate that possibility is to assume that these women have reached a desperation for companionship. The plot does not rush through the build-up of their relationships, either, and over the course of the first hour they have philosophical discussions, share happy memories and frolic through a garden of lust, comedy and magic. It is there that the women realize, subconsciously, that they may have some level of psychic ability, and the arrival of Daryl van Horn is no longer coincidental. But is he human, or a malevolent force that amplifies their power? A conversation confronting that possibility only bubbles under the surface until the film gets grim, while the women discuss Felicia’s crazed influence over their professional lives and wish her ill will… just as she turns up dead the following morning. Would that have been possible if Daryl had not been there? Did he fuel the fire that quietly burned in them? What purpose would he have otherwise?

In the wrong hands all of this could have been absurd, over-the-top nonsense. But Miller modulates the material from such a meticulous place that his fantasy develops with sincerity and humor, great underlying chemistry, and performances that inhabit the material rather than overplay it. Nicholson, who is essentially playing the devil in human form, has a great deal of fun with the zeal of his portrayal, often moving from one emotion to the next with minimal suspicion (although his dancing eyebrows seem to indicate an impending transition). His three co-stars have impeccable chemistry with him – particularly Cher, who not only rises above being a mere love interest, but also proves to be a critical and fearless voice of reason just as his schtick descends into unnerving retaliation. The unsung hero of all this, however, is Cartwright; her kindly socialite begins conventionally, slowly unravels as Daryl moves into her circle, and eventually becomes a vessel for incessant rambling and radical conspiracy theories (the centerpiece of this comes at a scene in a church, where she lurches into a diatribe about the evils of “incest and Spanish fly”). She is so convincing that the endeavor has an almost uncomfortable quality, as if watching someone you admire lose a battle to enveloping madness.

Yet Miller is too smart to simply let the episodes play for the sake of the comedy. He uses them to a greater rhythm. Felicia’s explosion at church, for instance, can be seen as a framing device for later, when Daryl winds up in the same place after the ladies have turned the tables on him. Nicholson is so skilled at instilling both fear and fascination in his audience that his eventual monologue has dual qualities: obscene and disgusting, yet precise in its momentary accuracy. What it leads to, alas, is not exactly a flattering conclusion. When the women realize the full scope of their abilities – and Daryl’s intent to exploit them – they are forced into a drastic decision that leads to a long-winded action sequence, full of explosions and chases and collapsing marble columns, before they restore balance to their reality. The special effects have the quality of a cheap Saturday morning cartoon, and the shots are indistinct, as if the camera anticipates their cheesy details. Was Miller even present for these final scenes, or were they merely tacked on by some unknown studio head attempting to play to a formula? That possibility begs a discussion, I suppose, but not an outright dismissal. The movie remains thoroughly enjoyable, even when it ought not to be. We laugh, observe with enthusiasm and take delight in its train wreck of values. And by the end, regardless of how many ringers we’ve been put through, we have the sneaking suspicion that everyone on screen would have had it no other way.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Comedy/Fantasy (US); 1987; Rated R; Running Time: 118 Minutes

Cast:
Jack Nicholson: Daryl van Horne
Cher: Alexandra Medford
Susan Sarandon: Jane Spofford
Michelle Pfeiffer: Sukie Ridgemont
Veronica Cartwright: Felicia Alden
Richard Jenkins: Clyde Alden

Produced by
Neil Canton, Rob Cohen, Don Devlin, Peter Guber and Jon PetersDirected by George Miller; Written by Michael Cristofer; based on the novel by John Updike

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