*** (A must-see)

Directed by George Miller

Written by Michael Cristofer

With Jack Nicholson, Susan Sarandon, Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Veronica Cartwright.

The pairing of author John Updike and director George Miller at first seems a strange proposition. Updike, of course, is the quintessential man of letters, a critic as well as a novelist who has managed the difficult feat of attaining critical and popular success. Miller is the Australian filmmaker most famous for the Mad Max series, those kinetic visions of futuristic barbarism. Nothing could seem less alike, at first, than Updike’s contemporary American morality plays and Miller’s pop apocalypses. One artist obviously abhors contemporary culture; the other enthusiastically marshals it. It wouldn’t be unusual to read a story by Updike in which one of his characters somehow sees The Road Warrior and ends up having an extended spiritual crisis because of it.

Deep down, however, they are sympathetic because both are basically stern moralists. Updike’s work depicts Protestant purgatories where ill-prepared sinners wage obsessive spiritual wars beneath, or even with, the commonplaces of life. Miller’s pop apocalypses are exactly that, cataclysmic destructions that have left the world divided between the chosen and the damned, with only an avenging angel able to impose some kind of order. So the intellectual commentator from the northeast and the fire-and-brimstone adventurer from Australia do share a common vision: that of a world where men’s souls–and that’s men, not mankind, for these are very male-oriented artists–are in constant danger.

Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick, then, is a good meeting ground for the temperamentally akin pair, since it has a soupcon of the action sequences at which Miller is so adept and, further, speaks in the large-scale terms that Miller seems to prefer. The story is about three modern witches who have an encounter with a peculiarly frazzled and disorganized devil. It’s tempting to read the film as a metaphor for contemporary sexual relations, a war of the sexes with special effects. However, there’s nothing in either man’s work that would make us think they weren’t capable of a literal belief in Satan; on the contrary, sin is such an essential component of their visions, the constant antagonist in their works, that Old Nick would seem an inescapable player in their cosmologies.

The devil in question here is Daryl Van Horne, an ostentatious New Yorker who arrives in the sedate Massachusetts village of Eastwick in answer to the shared longings of three women. Respectively widowed, abandoned, and virginal (or at least chaste), Alexandra Medford (Cher), Sukie Ridgemont (Michelle Pfeiffer), and Jane Spofford (Susan Sarandon) are making a good enough go of it without men, but they are desperately horny. One stormy night, as the three friends sit around wishing for the perfect man, a black limousine driven by a seven-foot-tall exotic glides into town, and a strange figure takes up residence in a local mansion, which centuries before had been the site of witch trials.

We’re tipped early that the women might have unusual powers (a dull civic convocation is disrupted by a thunderous storm they unknowingly bring on); at any rate, it’s clear that they have summoned the hellish visitor and that he hasn’t arbitrarily picked them out. Before long, the three have been drawn into a decidedly modern coven with Eastwick’s newest citizen, one based on the immense sexual powers of the otherwise cloddish imp. However, when the three discover they are pregnant (including Jane, heretofore infertile), they get their danders up. Having realized that Van Horne hails from the nether regions (even more degraded than New York), the three women feel they’ve been tricked and refuse to see their Stud from Hell anymore. However, a curse from the’ churlish visitor that almost kills Sukie sends them back into his arms, where they finally successfully plot their way to freedom and Van Horne’s return to his home down under.

The general outline of the plot seems like an ordinary male versus female comedy, and the film does function effectively as light entertainment. Jack Nicholson, as Van Horne, gives what is surely the most over-the-top performance of his career, easily surpassing the wild-eyed killer of The Shining and the potbellied satyr of Terms of Endearment. Van Horne is the kind of rich toff who can’t quite figure out what’s fashionable so overdresses wildly in the gaudiest togs imaginable. So sure of his appeal to women, he makes the most brazen overtures to them. And so satisfied in his prerogatives, he gives not a whit for others’ opinions and smugly alters his property, destroying an important bird sanctuary. Van Horne is gauche, rude, and pigheaded, but Nicholson still manages to make him appealing. The odd thing about Nicholson’s performance is that he takes his character way beyond the bounds of credibility. What we have here, more than a legitimate characterization, is an orgy of overstatement; not for a minute can one ignore that this is Jack Nicholson, superstar and everyone’s favorite devil. But, give the devil his due, somehow it works here. In the Hollywood cosmology, Nicholson does represent some kind of charming fallen angel, and he trades on that image shamelessly–but effectively.

Miller is usually able to contain Nicholson by using a visual style that emphasizes large spaces. Nicholson is often sharing the screen with one of his costars–including his mansion, which takes on the presence of another character–and is really just reacting to them. For this is a devil who, as much as a bumpkin can, tailors his approach to his subject. Outrageously obnoxious to sophisticated sculptress Alexandra, passionately musical with cellist Jane, and playfully unaggressive with full-time mother Sukie, he’s simply fulfilling their wishes. The women make this movie run, and they are the source of its meaning. Unfortunately, that meaning is not a particularly attractive one.

All three figures are archetypes, and though it’s a tribute to the three very talented actresses that play them that they seem plausible, they are entirely representational. Alexandra’s sculpture, for example, consists of one figure, an enormously pregnant naked woman, executed over and over again. Jane is a conventional spinster, all buttoned down and brushed back, who turns into a raving sex maniac with Daryl’s attentions. Sukie, with her passel of blond-haired children, is the ultimate mother, who, as she points out, is always pregnant. This obvious equation of biological and artistic fertility doesn’t make the women larger than life as much as it makes them symbols of nature.

Now, perhaps in other hands nature would be made to seem a positive force, but for Updike and Miller, no material thing, whether God-made (like nature) or man-made (like art), has intrinsic goodness. It all depends on what people do with it. So when Jane’s grammar school music class, after hours of clumsy failure, suddenly masters Mozart because she unleashes her witching powers on it, the scene, though comic, is sinister. Clearly, the accomplishment is an ambiguous one. The music is beautiful, the kids are happy, but Jane–the most troubling of the three women since her transformation is the most farcical yet the most complete–is further confined in her love of the devil. The same applies to Alexandra, whose improved fecund figures take on gargantuan dimensions.

Only Sukie, the mother, seems to have some reserve against Van Horne, so it’s not surprising that when the women decide to stop seeing their mentor, Sukie is the most adamant and then the most punished. The incident that sets the women against Van Horne is the death of a local councilwoman who has also felt rising powers, but has immediately identified them as evil. This woman (Veronica Cartwright) is married to a man she considers a failure, whom she constantly prods to better himself. When her ravings about the devil, coupled with her nagging, become too much, they drive her husband to kill her. But the three witches interpret the murder–correctly, according to Miller at least–as the work of Van Horne, since it was his evil presence that triggered her madness. But what evil? After all, all Van Horne has really done is destroy a bird sanctuary and impregnate three women who coveted his lustful advances in the first place.

The evil, apparently, is what is evoked in the devil when the three women refuse to form a family with him. Abandoning him, they drive him to action and unleash a series of events that culminate in increasingly violent supernatural disturbances. Van Horne turns into a tantrum-throwing slob, one who wants his women to take care of him, clean his clothes, give him a “little respect.” What every husband wants, in fact. A plot to kill Van Horne ends up with the bedraggled devil ranting in a church that women are a curse from God and are the ultimate downfall of “us”–men and angels. As he says, “Did God make women by mistake or on purpose? Because if it’s a mistake, maybe we can do something about it!”

This ultimate statement of misogyny, though comic, is where the movie’s heart lies. Sex, a possible blessing, is corrupted by women, who, normally the keepers of order (raising families, preserving art, celebrating their femininity in neat, quiet ways), become completely destructive when aroused. Miller and Updike’s fear of sexually hungry women is Euripidean in its force. After all, the powers of darkness don’t have a chance against it; the film’s optimism lies in its hope that women are merely an earthly trial.

The ugliness of the statement is mitigated by its comic treatment. As noted, Nicholson is very funny; Sarandon and Cartwright also display a tremendous talent for imbuing even the most innocuous exchanges with humor; Cher is very well cast as a wiseguy artist; and Michelle Pfeiffer does well with an underwritten part. But there doesn’t seem to be any self-awareness in this comedy of fearsome women. Rather, Miller’s sophisticated mise-en-scene often throws up unexpected images of dread at the most surprising times. When the three women are being chased through the mansion by a vengeful Van Horne, Miller uses long shots, often overhead, that show the trio rushing swiftly through darkened halls, cloaks billowing behind them as they seem to flee. These are images of potency, not fear, and it’s obvious that the real danger is to the merely supernatural devil, not these powerful earth mothers. All in all, a polished and witty bit of male sexual panic.