(In French, On TV, October 2017) There is, without question, a lot of fun to be had watching The Witches of Eastwick on a basic level, as three likable women are seduced by the devil incarnate, only to take revenge. Jack Nicholson playing the Devil is as perfect a piece of casting as you can imagine, and there’s no denying the combined sex-appeal of Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon as the titular coven. The film does have a good go at satirizing various relationship conventions (What do Women Want? Indeed) before predictably moving toward a female empowerment finale. But therein lies the rub: There was no other way to finish the film, and it kind of goes wrong in subtle and no-so-subtle ways. I would feel far better if a woman had written the screenplay, because the male gaze (and male privilege) shown here is problematic. I’m not sure that all three women being ga-ga over babies of a dubious father makes sense. (It makes even less sense to consider that one of the female characters already has half a dozen children that practically never show up during the movie—where are they and why isn’t she spending time with them???) In some way, The Witches of Eastwick is an artifact of a time that is hopefully past—a dumb producer’s (i.e.: Jon Peters) brute-force vision of something that should be far more delicately handled. The Witches of Eastwick is funny and sexy, but it’s a guilty fun and an even guiltier sexiness. It doesn’t help that the script seems patched-up at times. The cherry pit-vomiting sequences are just gross and take away from the generally amiable remainder of the picture. (Then again, this is directed by George Miller, who’s made a career to strange tonal shifts) But this was 1987 and we’re now thirty years later—I’d be game for a less problematic remake, but I’m not sure who could step up to Nicholson’s performance.
(On Cable TV, May 2017) I’ll give you two good reasons for watching this film: Nicolas Cage and Cher. Never mind that it’s a romantic comedy set against the Italian-American Brooklyn community. Or that it’s from acclaimed writer John Patrick Shanley and veteran director Norman Jewison. Or the unpredictable, gentle nature of the plot. The focus here is on Nicolas Cage’s energetic performance, and Cher’s terrific portrait of a woman contemplating middle age with doubts. Cher looks spectacular here, but so does Cage, and Olympia Dukakis has a strong supporting role. I’m not sure there’s a lot of substance in Moonstruck, but there’s a lot of sympathy and gentle humour—the way the film climaxes, with an unusually reasonable discussion around a dinner table, is the most unusual flourish on an improbable film. But it works, and it’s charming enough even a generation later.
(On TV, March 2016) The touch of the Farrely brothers is obvious in Stuck on You, another of their comedies in which disability is seen sympathetically, North-eastern United States represents and comedy springs from uncomfortable situations. To wit: Stuck on You is about conjoined twins linked at the hip, and how they try to achieve one of them’s success as a Hollywood actor. As a physical comedy, Stuck on You milks a lot of laughs from suggesting the practical reality of its characters (one of them donning black clothes as the other perform a one-man show, the other wearing a teddy bear suit in bed when the other meets a romantic prospect), then goes for gentle Hollywood satire when a truly awful TV show becomes a rating darling. Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear are rather good in thankless roles, while Cher gets a few laughs in a relatively unflattering role. (Eva Mendes and Meryl Streep also show up successfully in small roles) Stuck on You is a film of small moments rather than overall storytelling: the plot is familiar, the beats are predictable and what sets it apart is some degree of success in delivering the small laughs that populate the larger but blander framework. In retrospect, it’s almost amazing that Stuck on You manages to last more than ninety minutes without quite wearying what could have been a one-note premise. Interestingly enough, the film manages to avoid most gross-out gags, which may be surprising given some of the Farrelly Brothers’ filmography. But they would have been out of place in a film that generally plays things sweetly and without meanspiritedness. Better than it could have been, Stuck on You isn’t particularly sophisticated entertainment, but it holds its own against most odds.
(In theaters, December 2010) Burlesque does quite a few things blandly or badly, but the real test of musical comedies is whether they deliver the expected music, laughs, dance choreographies and smiles whenever the final credits start to roll. So it is that we can’t really fault the film for an intensely familiar structure, predictable plot developments, weaker tunes or a very PG interpretation of “burlesque”; not as long as it has enough song-and-dance. There are plenty of good news: Christina Aguilera proves to be a credible actress, Cher looks amazingly good for her age (and you can see this as an invitation to cue all of the usual cosmetic surgery jokes), Stanley Tucci is as good as he usually is, the somewhat better-than-usual banter probably comes from Diablo Cody’s screenwriting and in terms of choreography, Burlesque has more or less what we can expect from a contemporary musical. Unfortunately, there is little here to set the film apart from more notable musicals: The songs are instantly forgettable (the one exception, a maudlin solo number by Cher, stays in mind because it uses the flimsiest of pretexts to stop the entire film dead in its tracks), the plot offers few surprises, the choreography of each number blurs into an indistinct mush, and the choice to play much of the story earnestly rather than as ironic camp seems like a modestly wasted opportunity. There’s no risk-taking here, and the film’s family-friendly take on neo-burlesque is a telling clue as to what kind of middle-American target the filmmakers were aiming for. Fortunately, there are still enough fancy fishnet stockings on display to resort to sheer sex-appeal when the film’s other qualities prove defective. No matter what, there is at least some redemption in the mud: Burlesque may be ordinary, but it’s not often boring.