Practical Magic
directed by Griffin Dunne
(Warner Brothers, 1998)

The women of the Owens family have lived in the same small New England town for more than 200 years. For all that time, everything that has gone wrong in the town has been blamed on them, because the Owens women are witches, and they're darned proud of it.

After the deaths of Sally and Gillian's parents, they are taken in by their aunts Frances and Jet (delightfully played by Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest), the current Owens Witches. Aunt Fran and Aunt Jet not only teach the children the history of their family, but also how to use their magical powers.

Because their mother died of a broken heart after her husband's death -- attributed to a family curse -- Sally vows never to fall in love. So, to keep herself safe, she casts a spell to summon her true love, but the qualities she specifies cannot exist. Gillian, on the other hand, cannot wait to fall in love.

Flash to the present. Both girls are now grown, but while Sally (Sandra Bullock) yearns only for a normal life, Gillian (Nicole Kidman) leaves town and goes through a succession of boyfriends until she finds too-good-to-be-true Jimmy Angelov (Goran Visnjic). Sally at last marries, has two daughters and finds the normal life for which she searched -- until the family curse kicks in. Living once more with the aunts, she vows to have nothing more to do with magic, and forbids her aunts to teach her daughters. Aunt Fran and Aunt Jet, of course, blithely ignore Sally's order.

Meanwhile, Gillian is having trouble with Jimmy. When Sally comes to rescue her, they both end up captives, driving cross-country in Jimmy's car. To save them both, Sally doses Jimmy's tequila with belladonna -- but she misjudges the amount and he dies of an overdose. Rather than going to the police and claiming self-defense, the sisters decide to try and bring him back from the grave. And that's when the real trouble starts.

Sandra Bullock as Sally brings just the right touch to the witch who wants only to be normal and accepted by her neighbors. Nicole Kidman as Gillian is somewhat distracting. Her costuming and parts of her performance in the early parts of the film reminded me too much of Meg Ryan in The Doors, although Kidman has better hair. Later in the movie, though, her characterization seems much better.

The most interesting characters by far are the aunts, with their super-long curls and clothing that is only 90 years out of date. They steal every scene in which they appear, including the "midnight margarita" scene, which begins with Aunt Fran and Aunt Jet reciting the witches brew recipe from Macbeth as they throw margarita ingredients into a blender and ends with the aunts, Sally and Gillian dancing around the kitchen table, completely plastered.

The movie is somewhat uneven in tone, wandering between romantic comedy and seriousness; the scenes with the aunts or with Sally's daughters are almost pure comedy, but the scenes with Jimmy Angelov (before his death), while certainly not as taut as those of a thriller, are not the usual stuff of comedy -- except when Sally kills him a second time with a frying pan. The movie settles into a romantic comedy format when Aidan Quinn, playing a policeman investigating the disappearance of Jimmy Angelov, comes onstage.

Practical Magic is a fun little movie. While there is nothing in it approaching high drama, it's a pleasant way to spend an hour and 45 minutes.

[ by Laurie Thayer ]

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