LIFE CAN BE DULL in Paradise -- Eastwick, New England, that is, where three attractive women languish away the final stretch of beautiful womanhood. All three are unhappily manless -- owing to, respectively, death, divorce and desertion.
On Thursday nights the women (Susan Sarandon, Cher and Michelle Pfeiffer) meet to chug martinis, learn Chinese aphrodisiac cookery and lament the scarcity of eligible men. At one of these girlie sessions, they make one powerful wish -- and there's something about these headstrong women living in an old witching town that makes their yearnings pretty potent: If only a prince on a charger would transform their lives; some handsome, dashing man with the usual impossible range of qualities . . .
They get Jack Nicholson. As Daryl Van Horne, the Prince of Eyebrows plays a devilish-dashing fella who looks deep into your soul (and other parts) with nothing but hay-rollin' on his mind.
He struts into town the very day after the wish, to buy the town's most historic mansion. He has alarmingly intimate knowledge of the three women and, one by one, seduces them with portly panache. He can make tennis balls hang forever in the air. He has a Mercedes, a butler, Van Goghs, Matisses, Van Goghs by Matisse, a slick indoor pool. Plus, he is Jack Nicholson. Before you can say "swept away," the four of them are living in G-Spot Heaven.
Heaven isn't the word that comes to the mind of town matriarch Felicia (played with gothic bitchiness by Veronica Cartwright). She publicly denounces Van Horne (something about that last name) as a diabolical invader and, for this, mysteriously sustains a nasty compound fracture. When she forces her editor husband to publish a damning gossip story about Van Horne's mansion antics, Daryl gets really mad. (His revenge involves deadly cherry vomit; don't ask.) The women get scared. Things get gruesome.
Hollywood pulls out all the stops here, including a reordering of John Updike's original book to give you one flashy and chock-full-o'-surprises witches' tale. George "Mad Max" Miller directs crisply and Vilmos Zsigmond's photography shifts moods superbly, from clean New England greens to stark thunderstorm blacks and whites.
But "Witches" depends mostly on Nicholson. Certainly Sarandon (as music teacher Jane Spofford), Cher (earthy sculptress Alexandra Medford) and Pfeiffer (fertile town reporter Sukie Ridgemont) turn in excellent performances, but Jack is crackerjack -- reeling wildly between his quirky "Terms of Endearment" gallantry to the "Heeeere's Johnny" lunacy of "The Shining" with a zest that must be illegal. It's enough to keep the momentum rolling even after the movie's latter half has lost its magic and degenerated into bunk.THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (R) -- Area theaters.