It’s a curious thing, but when a story says “witches”, there’s seldom any doubt as to how many there are. You can have one “witch”, but when it’s “witches”, it never means two, never five or above, and rarely means four — generally only when there’s a thematic reason (season or direction), and even the film version of The Wizard of Oz eliminated South. “Witches” almost always means a trio, whether it’s the maiden, mother and crone of classic European folklore, the Furies of Virgil’s Aeneid, or Shakespeare’s classic cacklers in MacBeth.
So, unsurprisingly, The Witches of Eastwick has three female leads: Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer. This forms another trio that’s common in depicting groups of women, particularly in adolescent male power fantasies: blonde, brunette, redhead. It’s not a coincidence, although George Miller’s film is more of a middle-aged female power fantasy.
The three lead characters are all friends in the small, conservative town of Eastwick. In some ways, they’re different from each other. Sukie (Pfeiffer) is a reporter at the local paper. Alexandra (Cher) is a struggling and somewhat harried artist trying to make ends meet selling small novelty statuettes. Jane (Sarandon) teaches music at the local school. Sukie is somewhat naive, Jane is prim and proper, and Alex is somewhat forward. But the friends have points in common as well. They’re all formerly married and now single; Alex through being widowed, the other two through divorce. All save Jane have at least one child. All are struggling in their fields, feeling as though they can’t quite break through. And all of them feel frustrated and pent up in their lives.
One night while commiserating over some wine, they begin to describe their ideal man. They can’t agree on all the details, but there are a few things they put together. What they don’t yet realize is that when the three of them are together, they have power over how things turn out. Earlier in the day the three had made it rain… now their wishful thinking summons — or creates — a man who comes to Eastwick, buying the local abandoned manor.
The peculiar and mysterious Darrel Van Horne is the type of character that Jack Nicholson excels at playing. He’s slick… as in oily. A slimeball, even. Crude, rude, vulgar, however you want to put it. He has a personality that is like both poles of the magnet playing with charged particles at the same time; it both attracts and repels the women. But despite themselves, all three start falling under his spell and blossoming under it, even as a darker nature to Darrel starts to surface.
It’s a little hard to classify the film, other than simply as a comedy. It has elements of a romantic comedy, but it doesn’t even pretend to play out like one. There’s no pretense of love on Darrel’s part, only hedonism. The women enjoy him but there’s as much joy in their company together and the growing discovery of their powers; although this is an element that is frankly under-used in the middle segment. It would have been nice to see the women get up to more than just flying around, though not to the rotten schemes that Darrel sometimes pulls with his powers.
All the actors in the film do a terrific job. Nicholson, of course, fits the persona of the devilish Van Horne with natural ease. Cher’s character may not be a big stretch for her — to say that the character is brassy and assertive would surprise nobody — but it’s a role that works well for her. Michelle Pfeiffer does well as the sweeter Sukie, again in a role that is a natural fit. Sarandon has the most complex role of the trio, in that her character starts off very reserved and becomes unleashed as events unfold, arguably being the most hedonistic of the trio. Special mention also has to be made of Veronica Cartwright, who plays the one woman in town who is aware that there’s something deeply wrong about Darrel Van Horne, though of course she can’t get anyone to believe her. She criticizes and sermonizes in her more lucid moments, and at other times comes completely unhinged. It might be the best performance in the film.
Most of the humor in the film is fairly light, of the sort that would be typical of a romantic comedy — i.e., it’s humor deliberately calculated to make one smile, but not to laugh. The intended thought process for the audience is something on the lines of “oh, isn’t this nice?” — which is then subverted with the film’s darker moments such as the travails of Cartwright’s character. The funniest bit, however, is when the witches finally decide Darrel is no good and use their powers to badger him into leaving. Not only is it fairly good physical comedy, but Nicholson gives one of his most Nicholsonny rants as he suffers one indignity after another.
There’s a wry grin throughout most of the film, and not just the literal one on Jack Nicholson’s face. There’s a metaphorical one, directed at the audience, slowly building things up to the point where the audience will laugh. It takes a while to get there, but it pays off reasonably well.