MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Sandra Bullock (Sally Owens), Nicole Kidman (Gillian Owens), Dianne Wiest (Aunt Jet), Stockard Channing (Aunt Frances), Aidan Quinn (Gary Hallet), Goran Visnjic (Jimmy), Evan Rachel Wood (Kylie), Alexandra Artrip (Antonia)
It's funny how witches have gone from being seen as evil incarnate to symbols of misguided prejudice. I suppose it's because we feel guilty for the behavior of our ancestors in Western Europe, who tortured and drowned and burned thousands of innocent women for no reason aside from an irrational fear that slowly evolved into simple human cruelty and the excessive wielding of power. Perhaps this is our postmodern way of apologizing to those unfairly murdered midwives and widows--we characterize witches today as being simply "different."
This is essentially the message of "Practical Magic," an anemic supernatural black comedy about the Owens, an all-American family of witches living in a small Northeastern town. The two older members of the family are Aunt Jet (Dianne Wiest) and Aunt Frances (Stockard Channing), who, even if they weren't witches, would still stand out in the streets with their long flowing hair, dark, billowy clothing, and enormous hats. Early in the movie, Frances sums up the story's underlying pretenses when she says, "Being normal is not a virtue--it's a lack of courage."
She says this to her two nieces, Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gillian (Nicole Kidman), who, at the time, are young girls not entirely sure of their place in the world. They are alone and living with their aunts because their mother died of a broken heart after their father was killed. Because of a spell cast by an Owens ancestor 300 years earlier, the family lives under a curse: whenever an Owens woman falls in love with a man, he is doomed to die.
Sally finds this out firsthand, despite her childhood wish to avoid her mother's fate by never falling in love. As a young woman, she does fall in love with a man, marries him, has two daughters, and then watches her husband get killed. Gillian, on the other hand, avoids the whole mess by living a hedonistic, bohemian lifestyle of drugs, parties, and easy sex. Unfortunately, that lifestyle ends up getting both Gillian and Sally into even more trouble when they are both involved in accidentally killing Gillian's slimy, abusive boyfriend, Jimmy (Goran Visnjic), in a scene that is much more violent and intense that it probably needed to be.
This leads to several ill-fated attempts to cover up the murder, culminating in simply burying the body in the backyard. However, for reasons that are never clearly explained, Jimmy's spirit refuses to rest with his body; and, if his haunting weren't enough, Jimmy's disappearance brings in an outside investigator, Gary Hallet (Aidan Quinn), who is suspicious of the sisters' involvement. And, added to that, Gary may be the embodiment of the "perfect man" Sally cast a spell for when she was a young girl, thus risking her falling in love again and putting him in jeopardy.
Although much of "Practical Magic" is either silly, confusing, uneven, or all of the above, it does feature a few good scenes. One involves Gillian crashing a school parents' meeting of which Sally is trying to take part as a "normal" mother. The movie also features some good imagery, courtesy of cinematographer Andrew Dunn ("Ever After") and some sneaky, stylistic camera moves that are enough to be noticed, but not so much that they are distracting. However, the majority of the movie seems to define mediocrity--it's not offensively bad, but it's not good either. It's just sort of there.
Most of the scenes with the two aunts are enjoyable, simply because Dianne Wiest and Stockard Channing do such a good job of hamming up their roles as the spinster witch-aunts. On the other hand, Bullock isn't given too much to do because she's always trying to be "normal," and Aidan Quinn lumbers through his role with a forced Southern accent, even though he's supposed to be from Arizona. Kidman's slutty, chain-smoking sister act never quite takes off despite all her bare-foot, tight shirt, slinky sensuality.
"Practical Magic" never comes together because everyone seems to be trying either too hard or not hard enough. The screenplay, based on a novel by Alice Hoffman, was penned by three scribes--Robin Swicord, Akiva Goldsman and Adam Brooks--and it has all the hallmarks of too many cooks spoiling the broth. The characters are never clearly defined except in terms of their most obvious characteristics, the jokes are sporadic and often not funny, and the plot is shaky, unfocused, and full of unexplained events.
For instance, why Jimmy won't stay buried is never made clear--is it because he is also supernatural, hinted at by Kidman's character when she mentions he's from Translyvania and has this "Dracula-cowboy thing going on," or is it because the two sisters attempt to raise him from the dead, thus turning him into something "evil and unnatural," which their aunts had warned them about? And then there's the fact that all the town's women, who had spent the better part of the movie shunning the Owens, suddenly come to their help at the end for no particular reason. This is never answered, unless you accept the fact that it's necessary for the plot and to congeal the thematic issue of acceptance based on understanding.
On paper and in the previews, "Practical Magic" looked like it had great potential as a wicked black comedy in line with "The Witches of Eastwick" (1987). Unfortunately, in his second stint in the director's chair, Griffin Dunne ("Addicted to Love") decides to play it mostly safe (plus, he pours on the soundtrack songs ad nauseam whenever something emotionally important is happening). Instead of focusing on the black comedy, he makes the movie more of a safe romantic drama with slightly witchy overtones.
The story's main interest seems to lie in whether or not Sally and Gary will get together in the end, and whether or not the Owens family will finally be accepted into the small town society that has rejected them for 300 years. Unfortunately, neither the material nor the general tone indicate that this is the route the movie should have taken, and it ends up falling far short of its potential.
©1998 James Kendrick