Practical Magic Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998

Practical Magic

For over two hundred years, we Owens women have always been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in this town.
Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman

Just in time for Halloween is "Practical Magic", a movie about a family of witches, though with a decidedly feminist-lite touch. Unfortunately, this supernatural-suspense-romantic-comedy tries to wear too many hats at the same time, and ends up fizzling far too short of its potential.

When you hear the sound of the deathwatch beetle, you know your man is about to die.

"Practical Magic" begins, appropriately enough, during the Salem witch trials. A woman accused of being a witch is about to be hung. Using her magical powers, she manages to survive the ordeal, much to the dismay of the townsfolk. However, her story does not end happily after this-- she is abandoned by her lover while pregnant with his child, and in despair, she casts a spell dooming any man who falls in love with any of her descendants.

It's not that they hate you... it's just that we're different.

Skipping ahead to the present, the descendants of this woman are alive and well, though still ostracized by the townsfolk. The two oldest members of the clan are Aunt Frances (Stockard Channing of "First Wives Club") and Aunt Jet (Dianne Wiest of "The Horse Whisperer"), who gleefully flaunt their uniqueness. Together, they have raised their nieces, Sally (Sandra Bullock of "Speed 2") and Gillian Owens (Nicole Kidman of "The Peacemaker"), and have tried to impress on them the supernatural gift of the Owens family.

All I want is a normal life.
How many times do I have to tell you that being normal is not a virtue.
Bullock and Aidan Quinn

Sally and Gillian, despite their shared paranormal powers, are complete opposites in the lives they lead. Sally is the homely one, having renounced her 'witchy' ways to settle down, marry, and raise two lovely daughters (which isn't a stretch for Sandra Bullock). However, true to the Owens curse, her husband (Mark Feuerstein) dies an untimely death, forcing her and her daughters to move back in to the eccentric household of Aunts Frances and Jet. She desperately wants to fit in and find true love, but because of her 'condition', she worries that these things may never come to pass.

I'm back! Hold on to your husbands, girls!

On the other hand, Gillian is extravagant to the extreme, recklessly using her sexual wiles to bewitch the men in her life. She wantonly drifts from one bad relationship to another, until finally ending up in the arms of an abusive Bulgarian named Jimmy Angelov (Goran Visnic). When Jimmy goes too far in his mistreatment of Gillian, Sally steps in and ends up accidentally killing him.

How much did you give him?!
I don't know Gillian... I wasn't using a measuring spoon!
Goran Visnic and Kidman

Though the two sisters are able to cover up the evidence of the misdeed, they soon find evidence that Jimmy is still around in the form of a malevolent spirit. To further complicate matters, Sally and Gillian must deal with the arrival of Arizona detective Gary Hallet (Aidan Quinn), who is in town to investigate Jimmy's disappearance. And guess what? Sally is immediately bewitched by the ruggedly handsome stranger. Yup, by-the-book Bullock.

You really shouldn't smoke so much.
I'll probably get life... I should smoke two at once. It'll shorten the sentence.

Though technically polished and beautifully-lensed, this film ends up coming out flat. The story seems to emphasize Sally's struggle to accept her unique abilities and the perils of attempting a 'quick fix' to a given situation. Unfortunately, the pastiche script from Robin Swicord, Akiva Goldsman (the man responsible for "Lost in Space"), and Adam Brooks goes in too many directions at the same time, diluting the momentum of the story with cute asides and numerous musical montages.

Is he cute?
Yeah, he is... in a penal code sort of way.

For example, the introduction of Quinn's character does not occur until close to the end of the second act. With little time to develop his character or opportunity to have the audience 'fall in love' with him, the expected romance between Gary and Sally ends up playing out awkwardly and contrived. Another would be a less-than-climactic exorcism sequence which also seems rushed, using pseudo-black arts mumbo-jumbo and camera tricks to wrap up all the loose ends.

And though the script does an admiral job of using Gillian's spirited recklessness as a counterpoint to Sally's repressed disposition, there are numerous missed opportunities for a similar comparison between the three generations of sisters in the Owen household. The details and development on the two Aunts are spotty (they even disappear from the film for most of the second act), while the presence of Sally's daughters seems to be aimed at injecting sentimentality and comic relief into the story. If these two pairs of characters had more to do in the story and their differing attitudes to their 'gift' were explored, "Practical Magic" could have had more thoughtful and emotional impact.

You spend all your energy trying to fit in, but you're never going to!

The writing aside, the performances of Bullock and Kidman breathe some much-needed life into this pedestrian effort. While Bullock does what she does best, playing the role of the clumsy, lovelorn, yet good-hearted protagonist, Kidman is vibrant in the showier role. On the other hand, Wiest is constrained by the paltry material she is given to work with. Finally, Channing manages to charm with her poorly written part.

C'mon ladies! Let's clean house!

"Practical Magic" could have been an engaging film, using witchcraft as an analogy for the problems that strongly independent women face. However, instead of taking the high road with the material, director Griffin Dunne has decided to take the schmaltzy approach... with the net result being a half-hearted piece of bubble-gum female bonding.

Images courtesy of Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

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