Practical Magic: Griffin Dunne’s Slight Film, Starring Sandra Bullock

Though not as embarrassingly silly as Hocus Pocus, the 1993 Bette Midler starrer, Griffin Dunne’s slight, undernourished Practical Magic will not improve much Hollywood’s record on witchcraft.

Part comedy, part family drama, part romance, part special-effects mystery-adventure, though not entirely satisfying on any of these levels, this hodgepodge of a movie suffers from the conflicting sensibilities of its three credited scripters: Robin Swicord, who has done good work before, Akiva Goldsman, who has not, and Adam Brooks.

Sandra Bullock, who plays the lead, has been effective at making commercially accessible movies out of bland, schmaltzy material such as Hope Floats, and her new vehicle should prove to be no different, likely to reach mid-range success.

Female-dominated pic, which benefits from a strong, sexy performance from Nicole Kidman and supporting turns from Dianne Wiest and Stockard Channing, Practical Magic is obviously targeted at female viewers who may enjoy the Thelma and Louise-like bonding and the bumpy, lightly feminist road that the two central sisters undertake in this yarn.

The credit sequence, in which a witch is about to be hanged, establishes right away that sorcery runs deep in the Owens family. In a voice-over narration, Aunt Frances (Channing) relates how for more than 200 years the Owens have been blamed “for everything that went wrong in this town.” Frances and her sister, Aunt Jet (Wiest), are attempting to pass on to their young nieces the Owens’ unique psychic heritage, hoping to give them the power that comes from using practical magic. Sally and Gillian, who are raised by their aunts after their parents’ death, grow up in an eccentric mansion in which there are basically no rules. However, they soon learn the meaning of ostracism, when treated by the town’s folks as outcasts, if not freaks. They also realize that the invocation of witchcraft carries with it a curse–their family’s loved men are all doomed to an untimely death.

Action then switches to the mature Sally (Bullock) and Gillian (Kidman), who are opposites in every way. Watching her aunts weave spell for the lonely and lovelorn, the quieter Sally begins to realize that she will never find her soul mate. In contrast, Gillian is a reckless, fiery woman who enjoys her sexual power over men. Through cross-cutting, the movie presents the contradictory lifestyles of the two siblings, who early on had vowed to love and be loyal to each other for the rest of their lives.

Trying to distance herself from her foremothers, Sally denies her powers, striving to lead a “normal,” magic-free, life. Indeed, she marries an honest man, Michael and bears two lovely daughters, but, as expected, Michael is hit by a truck, leaving Sally a young, frustrated, deeply depressed widow. Reluctantly, she moves into her aunts’ flamboyant house, where she repeatedly warns them to steer clear of her daughters. The organizing principle of the narrative, which is adapted from Alice Hoffman’s novel, is that of the duo: There are three sets of sisters, divided by generation and personality traits.

Early warnings that the storytelling is problematic occur in the first reel, in which there are no less than two musical montages. Somehow, tale picks tension in its second act, in which Sally tries to rescue Gillian from her aggressively abusive b.f, Jimmy (Goran Visnic), a redneck Bulgarian who fancies himself to be a “Dracula cowboy thing,” as Gillian says. In its funny moments, the sporadically entertaining midsection (which is the best) makes good use of the femme-oriented household. The sight of these gorgeously spirited women cooking together, working on a spell, or endlessly bickering will delight female viewers in its suggestion that perhaps male company is not needed, after all.

Unfortunately, this axiom is disproved in the last reel, in which a special investigator from Arizona, Gary Hallet (Aidan Quinn) arrives to interrogate Jimmy’s mysterious disappearance. Despite intimations of sexual attraction, this section is bland and utterly predictable, with goodhearted Sally not only falls for Gary, but all too willingly confesses to him her terrible conduct with Gillian.

It’s in this segment that Dunne, who seems to be the wrong director for this potentially campy material, loses his grip. He inserts into the proceedings unimpressive special-effects a la Exorcist–in one of them, Kidman, hysterically lying on the floor, actually looks like Linda Blair’s Regan. Since, at this point, there is not much suspense or joy for the audience, all that’s left to do is wait for the meandering tale to reach its anticipated amorous conclusion, whose raison d’etre is to justify the billing of the film as a romance–to please Bullock’s fans.

Pic’s best asset is its ensemble, headed by Bullock and Kidman, who work together and complement each other well. Cashing in on the screen image that has made her a star, Bullock rehashes a role that by now she can play in her sleep, the ordinary, down-to-earth but bright woman. Sporting long red hair, and wearing colorful outfits that display her shapely legs to an advantage, Kidman brings spark to a flashier role, one calling for incoherent twists and turns that she miraculously survives.

A usually reliable pro, Wiest is disappointingly pale, probably a result of her one-dimensional part. Terrifically looking Channing uses her ironic, well-trained theatrical voice to deliver the few punch lines. Male company, particularly Quinn, who appears only in the last half hour, is too bland to add color or counterpoint the forceful female contingency.

Tech credits, Andrew Dunn’s lensing, Elizabeth Kling’s editing, and especially Robin Standefer’s design, are more than adequate, though Alan Silvestri’s score is too obvious in its emotional cues.

Credits

A Warner Bros. release in association with Village Roadshow Pictures of a Di Novi Pictures production, in association with Fortis Films. Produced by Denise Di Novi. Executive producers, Mary McLaglen, Bruce Berman. Co-producer, Robin Swicord. Directed by Griffin Dunne. Screenplay, Swicord, Akiva Goldsman, and Adam Brooks, based on the novel by Alice Hoffman. Camera (Technicolor), Andrew Dunn; editor, Elizabeth Kling; music, Alan Silvsteri; production design, Robin Standefer

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 105 minutes

Cast

Sally Owens…….Sandra Bullock
Gillian Owens……Nicole Kidman
Aunt Jet…………Dianne Wiest
Aunt Frances…Stockard Channing
Gary Hallet……….Aidan Quinn
Jimmy……………Goran Visnic
Kylie…………….Evan Rachel
Antonia………Alexandra Astrip