Practical Magic

Griffin Dunne's slight, undernourished "Practical Magic" will not much improve Hollywood's record on witchcraft. Part comedy, part family drama, part romance, part special-effects mystery-adventure, and not entirely satisfying on any of these levels, this hodgepodge suffers from the conflicting sensibilities of its three credited scripters: Robin Swicord, who has done good work before, Akiva Goldsman, who has not, and Adam Brooks.

Though not as embarrassingly silly as the 1993 “Hocus Pocus” with Bette Midler, Griffin Dunne’s slight, undernourished “Practical Magic” will not much improve Hollywood’s record on witchcraft. Part comedy, part family drama, part romance, part special-effects mystery-adventure, and not entirely satisfying on any of these levels, this hodgepodge suffers from the conflicting sensibilities of its three credited scripters: Robin Swicord, who has done good work before, Akiva Goldsman, who has not, and Adam Brooks. Sandra Bullock, who plays the lead and whose company co-produced, has a track record of making commercially accessible movies out of bland, schmaltzy material, most recently with “Hope Floats,” and her new vehicle should prove to be no different; it’s likely to reach midrange success.

This female-dominated picture, which benefits from a strong, sexy performance by Nicole Kidman and supporting turns from Dianne Wiest and Stockard Channing, is obviously targeted at femme viewers who may enjoy the “Thelma and Louise”-like bonding and the bumpy, lightly feminist road that the two central sisters undertake in this yarn.

Credit sequence, in which a witch is about to be hanged in colonial times, establishes at once that sorcery runs deep in the Owens family. In voiceover narration, Aunt Frances (Channing) relates how, for more than 200 years, Owens women have been blamed “for everything that went wrong in this town.” Frances and her sister, Aunt Jet (Wiest), are attempting to pass on to their young nieces the Owens’ unique psychic heritage, hoping to give them the power that comes from using practical magic.

Sally and Gillian, who are raised by their aunts after their parents’ deaths, grow up in an eccentric mansion in which there are basically no rules. However, they soon learn the meaning of ostracism, as they are treated by the town’s folks as outcasts, if not freaks.

They also realize that the invocation of witchcraft carries with it a curse — their family’s loved men are all doomed to untimely deaths.

Focus then switches to the mature Sally (Bullock) and Gillian(Kidman), who are opposites in every way. Watching her aunts weave spells for the lonely and lovelorn, the quieter Sally begins to fear that she will never find her soulmate. In contrast, Gillian is a reckless, fiery woman who enjoys her sexual power over men.

Through cross-cutting, the movie presents the contradictory lifestyles of the two siblings, who early on had vowed to always love and be loyal to each other.

Trying to distance herself from her foremothers, Sally denies her powers, striving to lead a “normal,” magic-free life. Indeed, she marries an honest man, Michael (Mark Feuerstein) and bears two lovely daughters, but, as expected, Michael is killed, leaving Sally a young, frustrated, deeply depressed widow. Reluctantly, she moves into her flamboyant aunts’ house, where she repeatedly warns them to steer clear of her daughters.

The organizing principle of the narrative, which is adapted from Alice Hoffman’s novel, is that of the duo: There are three sets of sisters, divided by generations and personality traits.

Early warnings of problematic storytelling traps crop up in the first reel, in which there are no fewer than two musical montages. Tension picks up in the second act, in which Sally tries to rescue Gillian from her aggressively abusive b.f., Jimmy (Goran Visnic), a redneck Bulgarian who is into a “Dracula cowboy thing,” as Gillian puts it.

In its funny moments, the sporadically entertaining midsection (which is the best) makes good use of the femme-oriented household. The sight of these gorgeously spirited women cooking together, working on a spell, or endlessly bickering will delight female viewers in its suggestion that perhaps male company is not needed, after all.

Unfortunately, this axiom is disproved in the last reel, in which a detective from Arizona, Gary Hallet (Aidan Quinn), arrives to investigate Jimmy’s mysterious disappearance. Despite intimations of sexual attraction, this section is bland and utterly predictable, with goodhearted Sally not only falling for Gary, but all too willingly confessing to him her terrible conduct with Gillian.

It’s in this stretch that Dunne, who seems to be the wrong director for this potentially campy material, loses his grip. He inserts into the proceedings unimpressive, “Exorcist”-like special-effects –in one of them, Kidman, hysterically contorting on the floor, actually looks like Linda Blair’s Regan. Since, at this point, there is not much suspense or joy remaining for the audience, all that’s left is to wait for the meandering tale to reach its anticipated amorous conclusion in standard Bullock fashion.

Pic’s best asset is its ensemble, headed by Bullock and Kidman, who work together and complement each other well. Cashing in on the screen image that has made her a star, Bullock rehashes a role that by now she can play in her sleep, the ordinary, down-to-earth but bright woman. Sporting long red hair, and wearing colorful outfits that display her shapely legs to an advantage, Kidman brings spark to the flashier role, one calling for incoherent twists and turns that she miraculously survives.

A usually reliable pro, Wiest is disappointingly pale in a one-dimensional part. Terrific-looking Channing uses her ironic, well-trained theatrical voice to deliver the few punch lines the script offers. Male company, particularly Quinn, who appears only in the last half hour, is too bland to add color or counterpoint to the forceful female contingent.

Tech credits, including Andrew Dunn’s lensing, Elizabeth Kling’s editing and especially Robin Standefer’s production design, are more than adequate, though Alan Silvestri’s score is too obvious in its emotional cues.

Practical Magic

  • Production: A Warner Bros. release presented in association with Village Roadshow Pictures of a Di Novi Pictures production, in association with Fortis Films. Produced by Denise Di Novi. Executive producers, Mary McLaglen, Bruce Berman. Co-producer, Robin Swicord. Directed by Griffin Dunne. Screenplay, Robin Swicord, Akiva Goldsman, Adam Brooks, based on the novel by Alice Hoffman.
  • Crew: Camera (Technicolor), Andrew Dunn; editor, Elizabeth Kling; additional editing, Craig McKay; music, Alan Silvestri; music supervisor, Danny Bramson; production designer, Robin Standefer; set designer, Aric Lashee; set decorator, Claire Jenora Bowin; costume designer, Judianna Makovsky; sound (Dolby digital/DTS/SDDS), Richard B. Goodman; special effects supervisor, Burt Dalton; visual effects and animation, Cinesite Digital Studios; visual effects supervisors, John Scheele, Jay Riddle; additional visual effects, CIS Hollywood; assistant director, Josh McLaglen; casting, Amanda Mackey Johnson, Cathy Sandrich. Reviewed at the Village Theater, L.A., Oct. 12 1998. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 105 MIN.
  • With: Sally Owens - Sandra Bullock Gillian Owens - Nicole Kidman Aunt Jet - Dianne Wiest Aunt Frances - Stockard Channing Gary Hallet - Aidan Quinn Jimmy - Goran Visnic Kylie - Evan Rachel Wood Antonia - Alexandra Astrip Michael - Mark Feuerstein