"Do you think God knew what He was doing when He created woman?" - DARYL VAN HORNE (not pictured)
When one thinks of '80s movies, one name that comes to mind almost immediately is John Hughes. A former writer for National Lampoon who parlayed his work on the humor magazine into film gigs like 1982's National Lampoon's Class Reunion (his screenwriting debut and an unmitigated disaster), Mr. Mom and the first of the long-running Vacation series, Hughes moved into the director's chair with 1984's Sixteen Candles, a seminal teen comedy and cultural touchstone for just about anybody who came of age in the '80s. Its success led to a string of films set in and around the fictional Chicago suburb of Shermer, Illinois, some of which (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off) Hughes directed and others (Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful) for which he merely wrote the screenplay. And smack dab in the middle of them all was the totally bonkers Weird Science, which is far from Hughes's best work as a writer or a director, but it stretched him in ways that his more ordinary fare did not.
Briefly, the story revolves around a pair of scrawny outcasts (Hughes regular Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith) who use a computer to create supermodel Kelly LeBrock out of thin air and proceed to have a wild, wild weekend with her. As we noted in our Superman III article, most people who lived in the '80s didn't know what computers were actually capable of, so a film like Weird Science could posit a scenario where a couple of geeks -- inspired by a late-night viewing of the Universal classic Frankenstein (which, incidentally, has suffered the indignity of being colorized) -- could make a working computer simulation of a woman on a 5" floppy disk by scanning a bunch of photographs into a device that looks suspiciously like a printer. Furthermore, when Hall decides they need more power, all they have to do is tap into a local military installation's network (using a primitive phone receiver modem) and it's there at their fingertips. (The sequence where Smith uses his hacking skills to get past the mainframe's security system features some Tron-like CGI and even a Twilight Zone reference.) Of course, simply scanning in a photo of Albert Einstein shouldn't be able to give their simulation Einstein's IQ, nor should hooking up a Barbie doll allow them to transfer it into the body of a real live woman, but there are certain allowances that one simply has to make with a fantasy film, otherwise you might as well just stay home.
If there's any doubt that we're in the world of adolescent wish fulfillment, LeBrock can create just about anything she wants (from snazzy clothing to fancy cars) and has the ability to detect Hall and Smith's deepest desires without them even having to verbalize them. (This is, of course, not to forget the opening sequence -- before their ritual humiliation in front of a gym class full of girls, that is -- where Hall does spell out their shared fantasy of instant popularity, essentially mapping out the plot of the film.) Thus, after taking a shower with them (their first wish, as it were), she drives them in a pink convertible to The Kandy Bar, a blues club populated by threatening urban types (if you catch my drift) and throws them in at the deep end. (It probably goes without saying that their entrance is accompanied by the requisite record scratch, but it's worth noting nonetheless.) This leads to the most embarrassingly tone-deaf sequence in the whole film where, following some elided carousing, we find an inebriated Hall holding court -- and keeping a table full of tough guys in thrall to his tale of being kicked in the nuts by the love of his life. The fact that he does so while talking in jive and somehow not getting his honky ass beaten to a pulp is the most unbelievable thing about it. Instead, the threat of violence comes from Smith's older brother Chet, an overbearing vulgarian of the highest order fearlessly portrayed by Bill Paxton.
Before I continue with the plot, a few words about Smith's family are probably in order. For starters, the Donnelly clan is extremely well-off, as evidenced by the fact that they live in an enormous house and are in the habit of giving home computers as birthday presents (see also: Ferris Bueller's Day Off). They also have a maid, but she won't be in until Monday, which is a lucky break for her considering how much the place gets trashed in the space of a day and a half. His parents are also away for the weekend on some pretext, but Smith and Hall (who is sleeping over) aren't entirely without supervision since Paxton is home from college (which is apparently a military school based on his buzz cut and fatigues) to make sure they don't get into trouble. Paxton also has quite the extortion racket going since he extracts ever-mounting sums of money out of a cowed Smith for every infraction, major and minor. He doesn't care about keeping too close tabs on them, though, since he takes off early Saturday morning to go duck hunting and doesn't return until the following day. That leaves Smith's grandparents to pick up the slack, but I'll get to them in due time.
After breakfast -- and the realization that the night before wasn't just a crazy dream -- the next order of business is a trip to the mall, the purpose of which is unclear since LeBrock can get anything she wants just by thinking about it. I suppose Hall and Smith want to impress their classmates by being seen out in public with her, but if that's the case why don't they stick together? Instead, the boys go to a department store to buy some perfume for her and she spends time in a lingerie shop. Also, the boys are publicly humiliated by their own personal bullies (Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Rusler -- we never see anyone else pick on them), who dump a cherry Icee on them from the upper floor, making painfully literal the concept that they're always getting dumped on. The other thing the trip to the mall does is it allows LeBrock to get the word out about the wild party she is throwing for them -- and to which the entire student body is apparently invited.
Before we can get to the party, though, LeBrock has to meet Hall's less well-off parents (Britt Leach and Barbara Lang) in a scene that devolves into a screaming match and is only resolved when LeBrock pulls a gun on them. This is an object lesson that will come in handy later. As for the party itself, the boys spend most of it sequestered in the bathroom, unable to face their peers, but they do manage to make contact with the two girls (Suzanne Snyder and Judie Aronson) they were lusting after in the opening scene. Meanwhile, having discovered that LeBrock was created artificially, Downey and Rusler get our heroes to go through the motions of making a girl for them (which involves the ceremonial wearing of a bra on the head), but all hell breaks loose instead and, among other things, a tactical nuclear missile appears in the bedroom. Oops. Another thing that throws a damper on the party is the unexpected arrival of Smith's blue-blooded grandparents (Ivor Barry and Ann Coyle) who get some priceless hoity-toity dialogue ("Something's going on here, Carmen." "I have a feeling we're not going to approve, Henry.") before LeBrock literally puts them away. They're nothing compared to the quartet of Road Warrior-style marauders (including Michael Berryman from The Hills Have Eyes and Vernon Wells from The Road Warrior) who appear out of nowhere, having been called into existence by LeBrock specifically to challenge the boys. At first they're petrified, but all Hall has to do is threaten the intruders with a gun (which he pulls out of nowhere) and they meekly withdraw. "That's my boys," LeBrock says wistfully, proud of them for learning the valuable lesson that violence solves everything.
Naturally, this macho display is enough for Snyder and Aronson to toss aside their boyfriends (Downey and Rusler, who disappear around the time the mutant bikers show up and are never heard from again) and hook up with Hall and Smith. Other ways to impress the ladies: reckless endangerment (Hall drives like a maniac while taking Snyder home the next morning, even getting into a car chase) and sexual harassment (Smith grabs Aronson's ass during their goodbye kiss, which initially shocks her, but then she relaxes into it). Oh, yes. And being true to yourself. (Aww, I guess they learned something of value after all.) Meanwhile, LeBrock has a Sunday morning confrontation with Paxton that ends with the latter being turned into a squat, brown monster who is so contrite he promises to never bother Smith and Hall again. With her work done, she then takes leave of the boys and everything goes back to normal thanks to magic of reversing film. Of course, it occurs to me that everything that gets trashed actually had to be doubled since the destruction scene takes place at night and the restoration is in the morning. That's what having a large budget will do for you, I guess. If you want to drop two grand pianos on two gazebos, then you can do it.
Before I leave Weird Science behind, there's one thing I need to discuss that's integral to all John Hughes movies of the period and that is its pop soundtrack. The most enduring song it spawned was, of course, Oingo Boingo's title track (which the band itself never liked and hardly ever played in concert, even giving it a pass when they came to do their farewell show), but the soundtrack also features contributions by '80s mainstays like Kim Wilde, Wall of Voodoo, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Van Halen, Ratt, Los Lobos, the Lords of the New Church, Killing Joke and General Public (whose hit single "Tenderness" plays faintly in the background while the boys are taking leave of their new girlfriends). The Boingo song also served as the opening theme for the inevitable sitcom version, which was rather late on the scene since it didn't come along until 1994. And, unlike the Ferris Bueller series, which ran for a mere 13 episodes in 1990, Weird Science somehow managed to stick around for five seasons despite the fact that it watered down the premise of the film tremendously (that is, if the pilot is anything to go by). If there's one thing it has over the film, though, it's that the clips it lifts from Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein are in black and white. I guess there's something to be said for respecting your source material.
By most accounts, respecting the source material was the last thing on the minds of Hollywood power brokers Peter Guber and Jon Peters when they bought the rights to John Updike's 1984 novel The Witches of Eastwick. They just wanted a splashy star vehicle for Jack Nicholson, who got one in the role of Daryl Van Horne, "your average horny little devil," who swoops down on the quiet New England town of Eastwick and raises some hell. In contrast to Weird Science, though, in which the protagonists' genie-like dream girl is created through the use of technology, Van Horne is called into existence the old-fashioned way by a trio of single women (widowed sculptress Cher, newly minted divorcee Susan Sarandon, abandoned mother hen Michelle Pfeiffer) whose latent magical powers turn out to be quite potent once properly harnessed.
In the opening scenes of the film we're introduced to our three heroines in the all-important context of the children around them: Cher has a teenage daughter who looks kind of like a miniature version of her; Pfeiffer is mother to a brood of six girls, which somehow doesn't interfere with her job as a reporter for the local newspaper; Sarandon is the childless teacher of the ramshackle grade school band. Sarandon is the only one who has a man show any interest in her, but this is nothing to brag about because it's her married boss, principal Keith Jochim (as Walter Neff, which was also the name of Fred MacMurray's character in Double Indemnity), and he shows his interest by brazenly grabbing her butt in front of her students. (Perhaps he's been taking lessons from Ilan Mitchell-Smith.) The other prominent townspeople are self-righteous selectwoman Veronica Cartwright and her henpecked husband, newspaper editor Richard Jenkins (who would eventually become one of the Coen Brothers' go-to utility players). Everyone else is pretty much reduced to the status of glorified walk-on, all the better to highlight the stars.
The plot kicks in when Cher, Sarandon and Pfeiffer gather for their weekly girls' night in, during which they pool their ideas of what the ideal man would be like. "If we're going to have it," Cher says, "let's have it all." Enter Nicholson, who comes out of nowhere, buys the Lenox Estate -- a huge mansion on the historical register -- and installs himself in it. Soon the whole town is abuzz about the newcomer in their midst (who claims to be from New York, but we know otherwise), but nobody can seem to remember what his name is. (Even writing it down doesn't help.) The first time we get a good look at the mystery man is when he's discovered loudly snoring his way through a string quartet recital, which shouldn't endear himself to anybody, especially Sarandon (an accomplished, if reserved, cellist). Indeed, his presence in town raises Cartwright's hackles almost immediately. It's unclear how she knows right off the bat that something diabolical is afoot, but over the course of the film she pays dearly for her clarity of vision.
From there, Nicholson proceeds to seduce each of the would-be witches in turn, starting with Cher, who professes to be unimpressed with the opulence with which he surrounds himself. "You have to take care of yourself," he says. "No one's going to gonna do that for you, are they?" Those words might have had more impact if they weren't spoken by a man being helped into his robe by his absurdly tall manservant (a mute Carel Struycken, whose stature was put to good use as Lerch in the Addams Family films). Cher even attempts to call him on his bullshit, but Nicholson wins her over in the end and then moves on to his next mark, arriving on Sarandon's doorstep with a violin under her arm. After unleashing her passion, he then has all three women over for a game of doubles tennis, which takes a supernatural turn before he completes the hat trick. Meanwhile, Cartwright begins speaking out against Nicholson and, as owner of the newspaper, forces Jenkins to print an article condemning him and, by extension, Cher, Sarandon and Pfeiffer. This is followed by perhaps the most notorious scene in the film, in which Cartwright is silenced, first by a particularly nasty spell and then by her own husband, who's clearly been pushed beyond the breaking point.
Realizing that things have gone too far, the women try to shut Nicholson out of their lives, but he isn't going without a fight and while watching a videotape he made of them in happier times, the demon begins to come out (without the attention of his harem, he really lets himself go) and he proceeds to use their own fears against them. Making nice with him, at least in the short term, the three of them then try to send him away using a spell from his own grimoire, which leads to a hastily-cobbled-together effects sequence that was more or less forced on director George Miller over his objections. (According to Hit & Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Gubers Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood by Nancy Griffin & Kim Masters, Miller favored a "witty ending [over] a special-effects tour de force," but he was clearly overruled.) This may rid them of Van Horne temporarily, but in the denouement we learn that he managed to impregnate all three women (even Sarandon). Furthermore, all three of the babies are boys, making them the first male offspring any of the women have produced. I wonder who they're going to take after.
In spite of the occasional lapses in taste (most of which, it appears, were the direct result of Jon Peters's meddling), The Witches of Eastwick has plenty to recommend it, starting with Polly Platt's impeccable production design work and Vilmos Zsigmond's fluid cinematography. Its most enduring contribution to the culture at large, though, is probably John Williams's score, especially "The Dance of the Witches," which appeared in countless trailers thereafter. Long out of print (and extremely hard to come by as a result), the soundtrack has since been re-released on the Collector's Choice label, which is good news for anybody who watches the film and can't get the music out of their head. In contrast, the soundtrack to Weird Science has never been released on CD, which makes me wonder how its stars would react to that revelation...
One of Craig's stated objectives at the start of this 1980s movie-reviewing project was that it should not be an exercise in mere nostalgia. That will be extremely easy for me this week, as I have not an ounce of residual childhood fondness for either 1987's The Witches of Eastwick or 1985's Weird Science. Oh, sure, I was quite familiar with both. Over the years, I must have seen 75% or more of Weird Science through its many, many television airings, enough to be thoroughly schooled in the film's basic high-concept premise. Eastwick, meanwhile, I mainly remember as the movie version of a book that middle-aged suburban women read in paperback form while lounging poolside. Until this project, neither one was exactly calling out to me. But that's the great thing about an endeavor like this: it forces you to look deep into the eyes of a movie you otherwise would've happily shunned for the rest of your life.
What we have here are two supernatural stories about idle characters conjuring up idealized sex partners as a way to stave off the boredom and frustration of their own lives. The women of Eastwick want a dark, cursed prince with a flair for conversation and a functioning penis of indeterminate size. They wind up with Jack Nicholson. The boys of Science want an aerobicizing centerfold with the IQ of Einstein and an ample yet manageable chest. They wind up with Kelly LeBrock. Since Nicholson and LeBrock are easily the smartest, most interesting people in their respective movies, perhaps they should have ditched their conjurers and wound up with each other. As it happens, both films end up heavily favoring noisy, special-FX-laden chaos over actual on-screen sex. My fascination with both films lies mainly in what they do wrong, despite the fleeting pleasures offered by each.
Let's start with Weird Science, as it was the first of the two to stagger into (and out of) our nation's multiplexes. This is possibly writer-director John Hughes's most out-there creation -- and may just be the least-loved of the flicks he made during his 1984-1986 apex -- but it's absolutely crawling with Hughes's pet themes and best-known motifs. Remember Auto Bingo, that traveling game you might've played on a family road trip while you were confined to the backseat of the family station wagon? Well, Weird Science would be a perfect movie to use should you ever want to play a variation on that game called John Hughes Bingo. (Please do keep in mind that the rules of John Hughes Bingo cover not only Hughes's directorial efforts but also those films which he merely scripted. After all, Home Alone and National Lampoon's Vacation can be every bit as rich in quintessential Hughes-ian themes as, say, Sixteen Candles.) You can use bingo chips or pennies to mark each of the following items as they appear in Weird Science:
- Upper-middle-class teenage angst.
- Shermer, Illinois setting.
- Worry-wart character teamed with more confident, swaggering friend.
- A shiny red sports car.
- Disputes with siblings, particularly tyrannical big brothers.
- Bumbling authority figures.
- Clueless parents.
- Seemingly unattainable lust object suddenly becoming available.
- Lots of Top 40 music blaring on the soundtrack.
- Bedroom as mad science lab with kid as Thomas Edison/Rube Goldberg.
- Suburban honkies out of their comfort zone.
- Humor that seems uncomfortably racist today. (See above.)
- Pesky older relatives.
- The participation of Mr. Anthony Michael Hall.
Yes, you'll find all these and much, much more in Weird Science. Smart-mouthed Gary and the more reserved Wyatt really do seem like Ferris Bueller and Cameron Frye, version 1.0. (Note how it's always the worrywart whose family's property gets trashed.) Wyatt's thuggish older brother, Chet, seems like the prototype for Buzz in Home Alone. And LeBrock's character, Lisa, could be the British version of Christie Brinkley's dreamgirl from Vacation. Hughes, of course, first came to prominence as a writer for National Lampoon and wrote a few Lampoon-branded films as well as several episodes of Delta House, the TV version of Animal House. Appropriately, Weird Science contains a few elements imported from Animal House, too, like having a buzzcut-wearing, quasi-military-type as a comical villain (Bill Paxton subbing for Mark Metcalf), motorcycles being ridden indoors during a party, and a prominent scene in which the nervous white heroes go to a black music club and encounter some glowering Negroes.
What sets Weird Science apart from the rest of the Hughes canon is its frequent side trips into Crazytown -- frozen grandparents, mutant bikers, a monster Bill Paxton puppet thing! It's pandemonium! While these wild-card elements are often funny, I found myself wishing they'd been incorporated into a more orderly, coherent screenplay. We've already covered a couple of fantasy films involving suburban kids, Explorers and E.T., but in each of those stories the filmmakers made sure to contrast the supernatural element with a believable, real-world setting. In Weird Science, there is very little effort to establish that Wyatt and Gary live in any version of the same world you and I inhabit. The boys do get "pantsed" by Robert Downey, Jr. (just a few months away from joining Hall as part of SNL's infamous 1985-1986 cast) in an early scene, but this moment seems to have little or no real effect on anyone involved. Contrast this with the actually plausible schoolyard fight that kicks off Explorers or the sad, uncomfortable family dinner near the beginning of E.T.. Compared to the characters in those films, Wyatt and Gary don't seem to have any actual problems. To me, the emotional stakes are much lower in Weird Science at its outset, so I had a tougher time caring what happened after that. Then, once Lisa shows up, the movie completely gives into random zaniness, and the film no longer even tries to make any sense whatsoever. It's just goofy vignette after goofy vignette until, like Down and Out in Beverly Hills, the movie just decides to solve everything all at once with a big party scene. The way I see it, creating a living, flesh-and-blood woman out of a Barbie doll and some magazine photos is amazing enough. We don't need the whole universe to be wacky, too. Besides, if the movie keeps introducing crazy new elements every few minutes, then Lisa herself doesn't seem so special.
Ideally, the movie should focus on the interaction between Lisa and the boys, but I think the difference in their ages made this problematic for Hughes. We all know what real 16-year-old boys would do if they had a gorgeous, 25-year-old woman at their command, but that story isn't appropriate for a mainstream Hollywood comedy. There's one scene in which Lisa and Wyatt kiss, and as I was watching it, all I could think about was Mary Kay Letourneau. So like Wyatt and Gary themselves, the movie doesn't really know what to do with Lisa. It's telling that she and the boys spend a considerable amount of time apart during the film. When they're actually in the same room as Lisa, the boys -- especially Wyatt -- seem a little sheepish and depressed. Leonard Maltin's review takes the movie to task for not following through on its premise, but how could it? Hughes may have thought he had the ultimate wish-fulfillment premise here, but maybe he didn't think it through.
More troubling than even the potentially creepy central premise are several unforgivable, cringe-inducing sequences Hughes includes in the film. I have already mentioned the scene with the boys at a Chicago blues club. The decision to have Gary "win over" the club's black regulars by speaking in a faux-Dolemite ghetto patois is embarrassing enough, but Hughes rubs it in by having Gary keep up the accent for several further scenes and then bringing back one of the black characters as a gruff bartender during the climactic party. The "ghetto" scene from National Lampoon's Vacation is not that film's proudest moment, but there is a certain ugly truth to the way it depicts white anxiety and racial paranoia. Weird Science, though, veers uncomfortably close to being a happy-faced minstrel show for several long minutes of screen-time. Practically as bad is a scene in which one of Gary and Wyatt's (conveniently anonymous) female party guests has her clothing ripped off by a powerful, unseen force before she is magically sucked up into a fireplace and then ejaculated through the top of the chimney. This moment felt like a sexual assault played for laughs. And, for the love of all that is decent and holy, did we actually need that totally unmotivated, late-in-the-game car chase scene in which Anthony Michael Hall evades a Dukes of Hazzard-type police officer by driving over railroad tracks as a train approaches rapidly? Each weekday, I take a commuter train from the suburbs to downtown Chicago, and one of our regular conductors has a habit of reciting the following warning:
Once again, we'd like to remind you that going around or under railroad gates or crossings is not only unsafe and against the law, it is also a bad example to set for the children. We would appreciate it if you would not set that bad example for the children or anyone else. Thank you.Now imagine all that being said with a thick Chicago accent and you have an idea of what was rattling around in my brain during that scene. Please, readers, do not follow the bad example set by Anthony Michael Hall.
Weird Science is not entirely a washout. The dialogue between Wyatt and Gary occasionally feels authentic, and I bought their friendship. Kelly LeBrock manages to make Lisa something more than just a sexed-up Mary Poppins. And Bill Paxton, bless his heart, is downright hilarious as Chet. The film's pace is so frantic that my attention never flagged. But the film has too many major problems -- both in its overall conception and in individual scenes -- for me to recommend it.
I'm not prepared to sign off on The Witches of Easwick either, although in this case some of the fault lies with me. You see, readers, with this movie I violated one of my own rules. When a movie is adapted from a novel, I always try to see the movie version first. Now, I know that conventional wisdom says to read the novel first, but this is just one of those many occasions when "conventional wisdom" is just so much hooey. I could explain at length why it's always better to see the movie first, but that would take another essay. It will have to suffice to say that reading a novel very frequently prejudices me against a film adaptation, but the reverse is rarely true. In any event, when Craig nominated The Witches of Eastwick for this project, I felt I just had to read John Updike's original 1984 novel. I was so eager, in fact, that I read the book before ever screening the film. And that's where I tripped up. I would not have loved George Miller's ungainly film of Eastwick under any circumstances, but I wouldn't have rolled my eyes at it so many times if I hadn't read Updike's book.
Not that the novel is any great shakes, mind you. It's mediocre at best, slight and a little too pleased with its own cleverness without actually expressing anything profound. Updike's, shall we say, idiosyncratic writing style occasionally makes reading The Witches of Eastwick quite a chore. The book is very slow-paced, light on plot (until its pitch-black conclusion), and extremely heavy on description. A routine exchange of dialogue might take several pages because Updike interrupts the flow of conversation with lengthy passages detailing the surroundings, the physical appearance of the speakers, and the general ambiance of the scene. Not to rely on puns, but the author describes the holy hell out Eastwick, RI, the three witches, and mysterious stranger Daryl Van Horne. (In the novel, Van Horne's status as the Devil incarnate is ambiguous, verging on dubious. The movie removes all doubt.) At first, I wondered how the book could ever be adapted into a movie, since the bulk of its pages are devoted to documenting the complex, ever-shifting interpersonal dynamics of the four main characters and the texture of day-to-day life in oddball Eastwick. The novel, interestingly enough, is set during the Vietnam War, and Updike makes a point of including numerous references to the politics, popular culture, and social/sexual upheaval of that era. (None of that made it to the movie.) Even though I found the story fairly un-cinematic, I saw that the four main characters definitely had potential, especially considering who played them. The three ladies were perfectly cast: Cher as earthy, take-charge sculptress Alexandra; Susan Sarandon as smart, severe musician Jane; and Michelle Pfeiffer as tender-hearted, somewhat flaky gossip columnist Sukie. As for the crucial character of Van Horne, while the large, hairy, "bear-like" man in Updike's book may not actually resemble Jack Nicholson physically, he often talks and behaves as if he were Jack Nicholson. Updike's Van Horne is an intelligent, opinionated, somewhat smart-alecky motormouth who carries himself with a great deal of confidence, makes himself comfortable wherever he goes, and has little regard for the "social niceties" which keep us from saying what we really mean. Van Horne is much more upfront about his emotions than the witches, who tend to gossip about their fellow Eastwickians in private. For those reasons, I could definitely see why the producers hired Jack Nicholson to play that part. In fact, one of the things that kept me going during the novel was imagining the interesting, unusual, possibly provocative movie which could be made from it.
Now that I have seen George Miller's film of The Witches of Eastwick, I must say that it delivered very little of what I was anticipating. Craig has already pointed out the two best elements: Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography and John Williams' score, both of which complement each other nicely and give the film a lush, sensual feel. But Michael Cristofer's script is a mess which never settles on a tone, a point of view, or an approach to the source material. What little survives from Updike's book has been horribly mangled. Take, for instance, the subplot about the sad-sack newspaper editor Richard Jenkins (who hadn't quite found his essential Richard Jeknins-ness at this point in his career but was clearly off to a good start) and his nagging, hysterical wife Veronica Cartwright. Now, the saga of the editor and his wife and what leads them to a grisly murder-suicide is one of the most compelling elements in Updike's novel. With actors as fine as Jenkins and Cartwright in the roles, I felt sure that this would be a home-run. But no. The couple's tragic story feels rushed, like an afterthought, and is so garbled as to be incomprehensible. Basically, Cartwright throws a few hissy fits (some public, some private) and vomits up a lot of cherries (thanks to the mischievous witches) while Jenkins mainly skulks around in the background looking nervous. Then -- insanely -- whatever ultimately happens to them occurs offscreen and is never adequately explained, depriving the audience of the opportunity to make an informed judgment. The crucial part of this story, that Jenkins's character is having an affair with Sukie, is not once mentioned. Why bother even including this material if you're not going to handle it in a meaningful way? I'm sorry to say that, in retrospect, the cherry-vomiting scene was the whole point of this storyline. Wouldn't it be awesome, thought the filmmakers, to show some snooty, small-town busybody upchucking cherries all over her pristine, light-colored carpet? So enamored were they of the cherry-puking routine -- a sizable hit in its day, I should point out -- that they had Nicholson himself reprise it near the end. By that point in the film, Miller and crew had not only given up on Updike's plot but any plot, opting instead for shock-value dream sequences like the one in which snakes crawl over Cher's body while she's in bed. What does it mean? Who cares?
That "snake" scene, frustratingly, is about the most exciting bedroom action Cher -- or anyone -- will see in this picture. Why were the witches' sex lives all but written out of this film? Didn't sex sell in 1987? In the novel, all three witches carry on affairs with married men. They've essentially slept their way through the adult male population of Eastwick, but you'd never guess that from the movie. Here, the three women seem to be in an unlikely sexual dry spell before Uncle Jack's arival. When MAD parodied the film as "The Wretches of Ecchflick" (issue #276), writer Frank Jacobs included an incisive bit of dialogue between Cher and Susan Sarandon on this very topic:
CHER: How about if we use our occult powers, invoke a mystical spell and create a Galahad or Prince Charming?The witches' impressive sexual track record is important to the story because it's one of the key reasons why they're such pariahs in the town. In the book, the local ladies have a good reason for hating the witches. If you're a woman living in Eastwick, there's roughly an 80% chance your husband has slept with Sukie, Alex, or Jane. (Possibly all three.) Not to mention the fact that the witches themselves are fairly negligent parents and every bit as judgmental, gossipy, and prejudiced as anyone else in town. In short, they are not heroines. In fairness to the film, I can understand why the witches were made much more innocent and sympathetic when they made the transition from page to screen. Movie audiences all but demand a "rooting interest" in every story. Still, I couldn't help but be disappointed by how tame the scenes inside the Lenox mansion actually were. In the book, it's not a swimming pool the four main characters share but rather an eight-foot tub. I don't think I need to diagram this for you, but things get a lot cozier in the book. Once you've read what happens during the characters' frequent post-tennis-match "baths," you will probably not be sated by the comparatively wimpy pool scenes in this film.
SARANDON: No one will believe it!
CHER: That we can really do it?
SARANDON: No, that three babes with our bodies and looks are hard up for dates on a Saturday night!
But setting that all aside, what does this movie have to offer beyond pretty cinematography and catchy background music? Well, for one, it's a great opportunity to gaze upon four genuine movie stars, at least three of whom get ample opportunities to strut their stuff. Poor Michelle Pfeiffer is the odd witch out here, unfortunately, as Sukie. As I mentioned before, the most compelling aspect of Sukie's storyline never reached the screen, and the script instead saddles her with a "scared victim" role in a newly-minted subplot wherein Sukie begins to show signs of illness, is rushed to a doctor, and even has some sort of cold sore for a few scenes. Why hire an actress like Pfieffer and then attach gross-looking scabs to her beautiful lips? In a movie supposedly devoted to female empowerment, moreover, why include these sub-Lifetime-Channel scare tactics? Susan Sarandon fares better as intense cellist/music teacher Jane, though an early scene in which she seems to be sexually harassed by the provincial putz Walter Neff -- and reacts passively to said harassment -- does a disservice to the character. At least we are allowed several scenes of Jane intensely sawing away at her cello, both alone and accompanied by fellow musician Daryl, and there are a few crackling dialogue scenes between Nicholson and Sarandon, as when Daryl bluntly critiques Jane's bowing technique. Speaking of crackling dialogue scenes, the best ones this movie has to offer occur between Nicholson and Cher, who have excellent chemistry together onscreen. If this movie has a brush with near-perfection, it comes during the sequence in which Daryl seduces Alexandra over the course of a long, improbable afternoon. This is the one time when the movie seems to be firing on all cylinders. The two characters -- wary but curious Alex and blatantly on-the-make Daryl -- meet on a path near Daryl's newly-purchased home, the imposing Lenox mansion, and immediately slip into quick, witty repartee. Soon, Daryl has lured her to his home, where he tries to dazzle her with opulence and clever talk before steering her into the bedroom. This whole sequence points to the kind of movie Eastwick could've been. It's not true to the very letter of Updike's book. That's fine... more than fine, really. I'm not a purist, and I'm well aware of how stories have to be changed when they move from one medium to another. Chemically speaking, Daryl's brash "courtship" of Alex shows how this movie can take some promising atoms from Updike's novel and fashion them into worthwhile cinematic molecules. An Eastwick movie should be sexy, funny, and smart, and there are a few moments like this when Miller and Co. come tantalizingly close to reaching that goal.
Unfortunately, most of the good stuff in The Witches of Eastwick occurs in the first half. That's when we get most of the nice character interactions between Nicholson and his three leading ladies, as well as charming little details about the individual characters' lives, i.e. Sukie's overabundance of zucchini, Daryl's encroachment on the local "snowy egrets," and Alex's penchant for making Rubenesque "bubbie" figurines, etc. (Daryl pronounces "bubbie" as "boobie" here, but maybe that was a personal choice by Jack Nicholson.) Somewhere around the middle, however, The Witches of Eastwick ramps up the supernatural elements and the horror movie ambiance. This seems to have been at the behest of the blockbuster-hungry producers rather than the director or the screenwriter, and it's a darned shame because the film really suffers for it. Eastwick stops being an incisive satire about small town life and sexual politics and becomes a silly, overheated combination of The Exorcist and 9 to 5. The resemblance to the latter is truly striking, as Daryl Van Horne loses any trace of complexity or ambiguity and simply comes to embody the stereotypical role of Male Chauvinist Pig (just like Dabney Coleman did), while the three righteous ladies carry out their elaborate revenge on him (just like Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton did). Before the effects-heavy, completely invented climax, Nicholson has a big showcase scene in a church where he lectures the parishioners about God and women. This should be a comedic/dramatic highlight, but somehow even this fell flat for me. (Al Pacino's somewhat similar turn in The Devil's Advocate is much more fun and entertaining than this, and Al is even given better speeches to deliver.) As for Eastwick's cutesy coda, I will only say that it is too stupid and insulting to merit further comment.
So this was a tough week for me, I must say. Neither Weird Science nor The Witches of Eastwick made a strong positive impression on me, although there are things to recommend about both of them: a moment here, a performance there. Strangely, if I had been around to offer guidance to either John Hughes or George Miller at the time, my advice to both men would have largely been the same: give back at least a third of your budget. That way, you'll be forced to cut back on silly, meaningless spectacle and focus on your characters, dialogue, and plot. You know, the stuff people generally liked and remembered about your other movies. Above all, fellas, trust your audiences. They've been good to you in the past and will be good to you in the future. Neither of you got anywhere by underestimating the viewer's intelligence, which sadly is just what Witches and Weird too often do.
Up Next: Seeing as how we now find ourselves in the middle of the summer movie season, the time seems right for a month devoted to films which are of a humorous nature but do not tax the intellect overmuch. One might be tempted to call it Dumb Comedy Month, but that seems reductive. Without giving too much away, I can tell you that we will be approaching this topic dangerously.