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As Spellbinding as Television

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 16, 1998

  Movie Critic

Practical Magic
Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman play sister 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
For minor violence
Fans of novelist Alice Hoffman have been waiting a long time for one of her slightly magical novels to be turned into a movie. Too bad it finally happened in the age of "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch."

"Practical Magic" is the story of the two Owens sisters, dark-haired Sally (Sandra Bullock) and extravagantly auburn Gillian (Nicole Kidman), who are hereditarily gifted as witches. They are raised by their charmingly eccentric aunts Jet (Dianne Wiest), the fuzzy-wuzzy faded redhead, and brittle brunette Frances (Stockard Channing), who practice white magic and who sashay about their fantastic Victorian mansion in elaborate Edwardian costume.

The girls are orphaned because the men who fall for Owens women are cursed and die, thanks to an ancestor witch who played "Scarlet Letter" but whose partner in crime never owned up. It's a little like "Bewitched," but nastier: The witches keep trying to be housewives, and the husbands keep coming up stiffs. So naturally the sober Sally, who swears never to fall in love, immediately marries cute, thereby providing the next generation of black- and red-haired Owens sisters (and dooming the guy to a future as a hood ornament). Sensual Gillian, on the other hand, finds out where all the cowboys have gone, i.e., Arizona, and gets herself a crazy one. But this time the Owens curse has a nasty kick, and the sisters' magic-making becomes the gift that keeps on giving.

It's not that the movie isn't fun in spots; it's just a TV-ready mix of camp and curdle. It has exactly the cheery tone and texture, and the one or two wink-wink scary moments, of a "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" or "Darby O'Gill and the Little People." In fact, it's not nearly so frightening as the latter, or maybe it's just that exorcisms are so common these days. And frankly, the special effects aren't much scarier than they were 30 years ago, either.

The script has so many holes and jumps it seems already to have been cut for commercials. Most of the dark psychological shadows of the original book have been sacrificed; even the predictable haunting has been given a cute suburban carpool-ish touch. As young girls, Sally and Gillian witness a woman begging their aunts for a love potion that will drive another woman's husband crazy. (She's supposed to be just one of the scores of townspeople who creep up to the aunts' back door for help, suggesting the witches' very complex relationship with their neighbors; but, hey, no dark secrets here.) The spell is successful-but the man's subsequent magical obsession, which eventually drives the woman to exhaustion and remorse and nearly suffocates her, is never even hinted at. "Be careful what you wish for" is supposed to be a warning, but instead it's the excuse for casting Aidan Quinn as the lawman tracking Gillian's missing cowboy.

Quinn does his best as the romantic lead, though the script jerks him between tin-star tough guy and star-gazing softy. The meatiest moments belong to Goran Visnjic (of "Welcome to Sarajevo") as Jimmy, Gillian's nonstop lover, whose eyes smolder so hotly you can almost smell the brimstone.

At least it's fun to see all the Hollywood witch in-jokes. Watch for visual references to "Bell, Book and Candle," "Mary Poppins" and "The Wizard of Oz," among others. But overall, as a Halloween movie, "Practical Magic" is candy corn. The trick is to treat yourself to the book.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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