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'Practical Magic,' Nearly Beguiling

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 16, 1998

  Movie Critic

Practical Magic
Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman play sisters who are witches in "Practical Magic." (Warner Bros.)

Griffin Dunne
Sandra Bullock;
Nicole Kidman;
Aidan Quinn;
Stockard Channing;
Dianne Wiest;
Goran Visnjic
Running Time:
1 hour, 50 minutes
Violence, sexual innuendo, profanity
"Practical Magic," Alice Hoffman's tender novel of true love and other enchantments, has been transformed into a sugarcoated Gothic sitcom inspired by lore as diverse as "The Crucible," "The Exorcist" and the TV series "Bewitched."

Of course, this hardly comes as a surprise when three writers and a pair of powerful actresses, including Mrs. Tom Cruise, all had a hand in stirring up this less-than-beguiling brew. Though the tale is not without its charms, its spell is repeatedly broken by the random pace and tone.

The movie, like Hoffman's novel, traces the history of a Massachusetts-based matriarchy of witches whose powers, in most cases, are no more supernatural than a tip from Heloise. And what hoodoo they manage is presented here with little flair and a modicum of expense.

Sally Owens (sensitive Sandra Bullock) and her sister, Gillian (spirited Nicole Kidman), have inherited the Owenses' abilities along with the family curse: No man can long survive the love of an Owens woman. The curse, or so little Sally and Gillian believe, results in the death of their parents and continues to haunt them as full-grown women.

Reared by their eccentric aunts, Jet (dotty Dianne Wiest) and Frances (operatic Stockard Channing), the sisters inherit their guardians' knowledge of medicinal herbs, love potions and other hoodoo. But Sally, the more talented of the two, refuses to use her powers in hopes of cheating fate and living a normal life. Taunted by her schoolmates and shunned by the townspeople, she sets out to win the acceptance denied her in childhood.

Gillian, a seductive firebrand, puts as much time and space between herself and her home town as she possibly can and attempts to defuse the threat by playing the field. Many years and broken hearts later, she returns to Massachusetts to console the recently widowed Sally and to escape her possessive thug of a boyfriend, Jimmy (smoldering Goran Visnjic).

Unlike the book, which explores the intense, varied ties among the Owens women, the movie concentrates on Gillian's desperate attempts to rid herself of Jimmy for good. The novel's darker depictions of love gone sour are also sacrificed to accommodate a chain of preposterous, highly unlikely high jinks.

Among them: the Owenses are suddenly embraced by the townspeople, who gather every Halloween to watch the coven, all carrying black parasols, float from the roof of their 200-year-old house a la Mary Poppins.

The scene is immediately preceded by a full-blown, curse-spewing exorcism that has been added to the jumble to demonstrate the awesome power of sisterhood. When women put their brooms together, as they literally do here, anything is possible. The goddess be praised.

The film is far from faithful to the novel, which isn't great literature yet is consistent in intention and tone from first page to last. Director Griffin Dunne lacks a clear vision, torn between blithe spirits and brimstone, between madcap and macabre. But then what does it matter when there's so little magic on screen anyhow? That is unless you count making audiences disappear.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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