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'The Witches of Eastwick' (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 12, 1987

Hell's belles! Nicholson's back. And that old Jack magic has us in his spell.

Be it "Heartburn" or hellfire, the man remains hot stuff. America's unlikeliest sex symbol is cast at last in the ultimate Nicholson part -- Satan himself, played for laughs with lunatic energy and a giddy finesse.

Taking his cue from Robert De Niro in "Angel Heart," he conjures up a devil-may-care Beelzebub with a ponytail and a vocabulary that would scrub the crud off pans. He is undisputably the star of "The Witches of Eastwick," despite formidable competition from his coven played by Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon.

One dark night over Cheez Whiz and martinis, the three women get together to lament the lack of good guys, wondering, "If men aren't the answer to everything, why are we always talking about them?" Nevertheless, they continue the conversation, wishing idly for an 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 is definitely dancing on the edge as the antihero of "The Witches of Eastwick," but then so was John Updike when he wrote the risque' 1984 best seller. Now 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, this Neapolitan-ice-cream-colored bevy -- a brunet, a blond and a redhead -- all 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 Australian George Miller. The modern-day mythologist who created Mad Max and adapted the fear of flying episode for "Twilight Zone -- The Movie" directs this eccentric fairy tale with customary flair and adolescent gusto.

His proportions are as outsized as they were in "The Road Warrior," but 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.

Nicholson -- Devil times 10 -- hasn't frothed at the mouth like this since he cut loose in "The Shining." His Daryl, unlike Devils of yore, arrives in sartorial disarray. He's got up in a fisherman's hat and a Bermuda shorts tuxedo, and his paunch precedes his winning grimace by a belt buckle. He's a reactionary womanizer who makes man's man Bruce Willis come off like a closet quiche-eater. Curiously, the allegedly independent women Daryl woos are easy catches, more willing even than Stepford Wives.

Cher, stomach muscles rippling like the bellows on a concertina but her presence somewhat stale, 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 in a family newspaper. "I appreciate your directness," says Alexandra. "But I am sure you are the most unattractive man I've ever met ... You're not 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 is a more substantial part for Pfeiffer, who is best known for her supporting work as "Scarface's" wife. She's exquisite and sweetly intent.

Still 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.

Despite her campy vamp and Nicholson's happy ranting, both are upstaged by costar Veronica Cartwright, a former child sitcom star who's grown into this impressive role. Here she plays the thirtyish 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. Richard Jenkins is also fine 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, 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?" There it is, girls, The Backlash.

"The Witches of Eastwick" contains extremely profane language and some scenes too intense for young viewers.

Copyright The Washington Post

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