Practical Magic

Except for “The Wizard of Oz,” films about witches haven’t been able to cast a magical spell at the box office. There have been good witches and bad witches, witches from Eastwick and sorority witches.


None have managed to capture the fancy of film goers. Television has fared better, where the likes of “Bewitched” and “Sabrina” have found an audience. I’m not sure what kind of audience the latest spell caster, “Practical Magic,” is looking for.

It’s a messy mix, a hybrid that tries to be all encompassing. It’s a romantic-comedy-horror-thriller for chicks. What’s that all about?

“Practical Magic” is obviously a chick flick. I was the only male in attendance at the first matinee. The rest of the audience was made up of single, 60 year old women, or late twenty-something female couples. I didn’t mind the Lilith Faire soundtrack, nor the female bonding of the plot.

What I didn’t get was why everyone else applauded when the film was over. The film isn’t a piece of crap, but it does stink on occasion. Which is sad, because the talent in front of and behind the camera deserve so much better.

Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman star as the Owen sisters, who come from a long line of witches. Not just witches, but cursed witches. It seems when one of their ancestors was stood up by her lover, she cursed the family women so that whenever they find true love, he bites the dust. Sort of like a black widow who likes to play with it’s prey before killing it.

Sally (Bullock) and Gillian (Kidman) go to live with their aunts when their mother dies of a broken heart after her husband dies. The Owens women dread the day when the beetle sings its song, signaling that the death of their husband is near. I don’t know what kind of beetle it is, but is sounds like a dung beetle to me.

As a young girl, Sally swears that she’ll never fall in love, while Gillian is already making plans to fly the coop. The girls become best friends, fending off the attacks of the locals who call them witches and throw things at them. Perhaps the angry crowd should have thrown things at the writers, who make a total mess of “Practical Magic.”

Even at its lowest common denominator, the first half hour of “Practical Magic” is unassuming and generally enjoyable. I liked the characters and the set-up. After that, the film tailspins into flurry of misguided romance and silly horror trappings that cause it to crash and burn.

You twinge when Sally’s aunts cast a spell on a good looking delivery man, causing him and Sally to fall in love and spawn two adorable daughters (who look just like mini-clones of Bullock and Kidman). They want Sally to have a little romance and happiness in her life, which is just what she gets. Remember the curse?

In one of the film’s most absurd moments, Sally’s hubby manages to dodge an onslaught of speeding bicyclists only to be run over by a truck. I would have loved to have been in that script meeting.

Gillian runs off to spread her magic and legs somewhere in Florida, ending up with a abusive boyfriend named Jimmy. When Jimmy beats her, Gillian summons Sally to come and get her.

On their way back home, Jimmy pops up from the back seat (another case of women not looking in the back seat before getting in a car) and threatens to kill Gillian unless Sally does everything he says. Sally better, because Jimmy is actually a serial killer who won’t hesitate to strangle poor Gillian. It’s only fair since Gillian has been choking his chicken for the last couple of months.

In a desperate attempt to subdue Jimmy, Sally slips a potion into his bottle, which kills him. Sally and Gillian panic, and drag the body back home and try to revive him with an incantation. Bad move.

Jimmy rises from the dead, but now he’s really ticked off. Oh no, I didn’t see that coming! The girls’ dispatch Jimmy again, and bury him in the backyard. Hey, it might not be “gardening with Martha Stewart,” but it gets the job done. I just wish the girl’s could have come up with a potion to breathe some life into the film.

By this point in the film, “Practical Magic” makes “Hocus Pocus” look like a classic. Less pocus, more focus. Enter police detective Gary Hallet (Aidan Quinn), who investigating the disappearance of Jimmy. Despite his gruff exterior, he’s really a nice guy, and Sally finds herself falling in love with Gary. Remember the curse? Hello?

The film ends with an exorcism to expel the soul of Jimmy from Gillian’s body, bringing together most of the community women who have spurned the sisters and their aunts from day one. Why these puritans would agree to do such a thing is never explained. Neither is the film’s lame ending, which suggests that Sally and Gary find true love. Hello? What about the curse?

“Practical Magic” looks sensational, thanks to superior behind-the-camera tech credits. Griffin Dunne does a decent job of pulling it all together, while the cast is generally agreeable.

Bullock is actually luminous as the sister who would rather put her broomstick in the closet and try to lead a normal a life as possible. She’s bright and perky and cheerful. Kidman does a great vamp, slithering around in tight clothes and a fiery red coif that would make Lucille Ball envious. She’s trouble all right, and Kidman plays the bad girl with aplomb.

Channing and Wiest are delightfully ditzy in a hammy, over-the-top sort of way.

The film’s real problem is the screenplay, which is credited to three writers, including Akiva Goldsman, whose scripts for “Batman and Robin” and “Lost in Space” probably sunk both of those franchises. “Practical Magic” makes no sense.

I tried to like it, but it fought me at every turn. By the end of the film, I was worn out. One day Hollywood will be able to conjure up a film about witches that will fly. “Practical Magic” isn’t it. It’s more like that wart on a frog’s butt that keeps hitting the ground every time he jumps. It’s doesn’t really hurt, but it is annoying.

AN IMPRACTICAL “MAGIC”

PRACTICAL MAGIC

Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Aidan Quinn, Dianne Wiest and Stockard Channing in a film directed by Griffin Dunne. Rated PG-13. 103 Min.

LARSEN RATING: $2



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