Picks and Pans Review: The Witches of Eastwick

updated 06/22/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/22/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It would take black magic to make a box office smash or any kind of sense out of this overheated film version of John Updike's 1984 best-seller. Updike's novel, set in a cozy Rhode Island town during the Vietnam era, was a playfully malicious joke on feminism. Three divorcées form a coven (read support group) and find they can make their enemies—mostly the wives of the men they sleep with—cough up insects and feathers. Soon after, the Devil moves into Eastwick in the guise of a hairy, foul-mouthed millionaire. He invites the witches over for some tennis and later group sex in his hot tub before inciting them to more dastardly deeds. Updike's restrained wit kept the horror fanciful and the satire rooted in reality. The film, clumsily written by Michael Cristofer (who gained an ill-gotten Pulitzer for his heavy-handed play The Shadow Box), totally misses the point by setting the story in the '80s and taking the witchcraft literally. Worse, director George Miller—the action master of the Mel Gibson Mad Max movies—behaves as if he's remaking The Exorcist. His actors' main task is to spew vomit or get spewed upon. At other times he resorts to Friday the 13th scare tactics and monster-movie effects. Why pay Updike $250,000 for the movie rights to a book no one wanted to film? Miller leads a marvelous cast astray. Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon make lovely, sympathetic witches, which is precisely what they should not be. They are now victims of that old devil, man, instead of strong women flexing the new and dangerous muscles of independence. That leaves the task of providing the fun to jumping Jack Nicholson, who's been working toward playing Satan since he filmed The Shining back in 1980. He snorts. He cackles. He bugs his demon eyes, lolls amorously on his belly and rages like a rhino when he's crossed. In one memorable scene, he even irons his shirts like an overworked housewife while watching The Price Is Right on the tube. While nothing he does has anything to do with Updike, it's a helluva performance. But it can't save this movie from damnation. (R)

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