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Wednesday, October 21, 1998

Practical Magic

Posted By on Wed, Oct 21, 1998 at 12:00 AM

"There's no devil in the craft," Sally Owens (Sandra Bullock) says to Gary Hallet (Aidan Quinn) about the witchcraft that's practiced by the women in her family. That's too bad, because one thing Practical Magic could have used is a little wickedness or, at the very least, a stronger point of view.

The film starts off promisingly, with the story of the woman who would "curse" her descendants with the dual-edged sword of witchcraft and doomed love. That Maria Owens was actually a witch in 17th century New England seems secondary to the fact that she knew a number of married men in the biblical sense. She had to be put down, but surviving an execution, the pregnant Maria was exiled. Abandoned by her lover(s), she willed that any man an Owens woman truly loved was destined to die prematurely. (The family name inexplicably survives generations of marriage to non-Owens men.)

Three centuries later, Sally and her sister Gillian (Nicole Kidman) have been raised by their spinster aunts Frances (Stockard Channing) and Jet (Dianne Wiest) after their father succumbed to the curse and their mother subsequently "died from grief." Channing and Wiest are way too feisty and strong for these lace-encased stereotypical eccentrics.

Sally, whose power is the strongest, wants nothing more than to be "normal," while the promiscuous Gillian aims to take a great big bite out of life. Sally marries and has two daughters, while Gillian pursues what appears to be a hedonistic existence and hooks up with Jimmy (Goran Visnjic, the charismatic Croatian actor from Welcome to Sarajevo), a highly charged Bulgarian with a vampire-cowboy fetish.

Then in a quick succession of events -- there is no sense of time passing in this movie, and the teenaged Bullock looks exactly the same as she does as the mother of a 10-year-old daughter -- both of the men die. Hallet, an Arizona police officer, shows up on the doorstep of their massive New England gingerbread Victorian house -- stocked with benignly witchy women -- looking for answers.

He's not the only one. Practical Magic poses a number of nagging questions -- like, why couldn't Sally and Gillian use their powers to subdue the violent Jimmy? -- and provides only half-baked conclusions.

The screenplay, credited to Robin Swicord, Akiva Goldsman and Adam Brooks, was adapted from a novel by Alice Hoffman. Something must have attracted this very good cast, but what reaches the screen, courtesy of actor (After Hours) turned director (Addicted to Love) Griffin Dunne, is nearly charmless.

By the time the film creaks to its perky conclusion -- that every woman should find the (good) witch within -- all the magic, practical or otherwise, has vanished.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at


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