For a story about a family of witches, “Practical Magic” does not have a lot of magic in it– at least not the visible kind. The plot of the movie features Sally Owens (Sandra Bullock) as the descendant of a long line of witches who wishes she could just lead an ordinary life and her sister Gillian (Nicole Kidman) who thrives on leading an extraordinary one. Growing up as orphans in the home of their aunts, Frances (Stockhard Channing) and Jet (Dianne Wiest), Sally made sure to avoid falling in love by wishing for an impossible man. Instead thanks to a spell by her aunts, she falls in love with an entirely ordinary man and he with her and they raise a family together– until the Owens curse strikes leaving him dead.
The Owens curse began with Maria back during Puritan times who had an affair with a married man and was tried as a witch. Successive attempts to hang her failed and so was instead banished, pregnant– to an island where she cast a spell that has doomed any men who marries an Owens woman. With her husband dead, Sally returns with her children to the home of her aunts to recuperate and gets swiftly dragged into a problem created by her flighty sister Gillian, whose dangerous boyfriend turns out to be downright homicidal.
Jimmy, is an eastern european thug with delusions of being a cowboy, has become quite possessive of Gillian and refuses to let her go. Sally’s attempt to help Gillian escape backfires when Jimmy takes them both hostage. An attempt to drug him also backfires resulting in an overdose that leaves Jimmy dead. What follows is then the most inexplicable scene of the movie, where they decide to solve the problem of his death– by raising Jimmy from the dead again, even though their aunts have told them that anyone raised from the dead will come back “dark” and “different”.
The undead Jimmy begins operating like a stalker leaving little reminders of his presence, even as Aidan Quinn playing a police detective investigating Jimmy’s role in a series of murders of women arrives drawn by his missing car. Hallet (Aidan Quinn) is also the mysterious man Sally has wished for and has managed to secretly fall in love with her based on the letters she wrote to her sister, but instead continually threatens and berates her until the entire thing culminates in a gathering of the PTA mothers to free Gillian of Jimmy’s possession and send him back to the grave.
The basic problem with “Practical Magic” begins with Sandra Bullock whose usual romantic comedy turns are leavened by a sense of humor, but is stolid and moody here, especially by comparison to Nicole Kidman who shines in the classy wacky sidekick role that lets her get away with nearly anything. A movie focusing on Kidman’s Gilliam might have been entertaining, especially since the only time the movie sparks is when she’s on screen. By contrast as Sally, Sandra Bullock stumbles through doing the heavy dramatic lifting with no real payoff. Yet it’s Sandra Bullock who also gets the movie’s one genuinely funny line, retorting that Louis L’Amour was not French.
Aidan Quinn clearly has no idea what his character’s motivation is and neither do we. Instead he belligerently stumbles through the movie with the general air of a drunk trying to find a phone booth in the desert. It doesn’t help that he has no conceivable chemistry with Sandra Bullock and often doesn’t even seem to be in the same scene with her. Goran Visnjic has fun playing Jimmy Angelov (Russian for Angel) but he does it just well enough to make you wish for an actor who could have really delivered his lines with the kind of manic insane energy they deserved.
Stockard Channing and Dianne Weist, both fantastic actresses are wasted throughout the whole movie in dotty aunt roles that could have been handled by nearly every actress. When you remember how amazing both these Oscar winners are, it reminds you of just how little they’re given to do in “Practical Magic”.
Yet aside from Aidan Quinn, the acting in “Practical Magic” is generally tolerable. It’s the plot that holds no logic at all– which is a far bigger problem. From Gillian and Sally raising Jimmy from the dead, to Hallett’s sudden deep passionate love for Sally to all the women who despised the Owens family suddenly showing up happy to be witches and then welcoming them in a celebration of witchhood; simply makes no sense. We’re perhaps meant to believe that the plot logic in the movie is meant to be magical– but the movie never is, magical that is.Instead it’s humdrum, even when magic is supposed to be taking place. Events don’t simply happen, they thump into place. There is no lightness or weightlessness to any of it.
Before directing “Practical Magic”, Griffin Dunne had only directed the feature film “Addicted with Love”, a romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan. Considering that degree of inexperience, “Practical Magic” is a surprisingly well put together movie. The movie’s rural locations are expertly and romantically captured on film– but the basic gaps of logic in the plot undermine the whole. Ordinarily gaps introduced by forced editing to reduce the running time might explain such gaps– an event that is increasingly commonplace as producers and studios aim at a 90 minute cut. But at a 103 minutes for a movie in which very little happens and which really has only one main character, who spends most of the movie in a depressed funk near her house– that excuse simply won’t suit.
Practical Magic had a lot of the talent in front of the camera, including three Oscar winners– it simply had no real idea what to do with them and the movie’s bland approach to magic and its crowd pleasing closing scene simply demonstrate a desire to pander to a broad audience, rather than actually tell a story. For a movie about magic, ultimately Practical Magic had little of its own to spare.