Big Stars Can’t Conjure Up Enough to Create ‘Magic’


The trailer and advanced hype on Griffin Dunne’s “Practical Magic,” the story of two witch sisters’ attempts to cover up an accidental killing, suggest something on the order of a big-screen version of “Bewitched.” But where “Bewitched” had just one romantic sorceress trying to contain her power while indulging ordinary human passions, this one has two--the ever-wholesome Sandra Bullock, an Elizabeth Montgomery surrogate if there could be one, and the ever seductive Nicole Kidman.

Even at today’s inflated ticket prices, a two-for-one witch offer like this should be a bargain. So, why isn’t it? Why does “Practical Magic,” with its big stars and major studio movie budget, feel like a sitcom with the air let out of it?

Let’s start with the film’s woeful lack of magic. The sisters, and the aunts (Dianne Wiest, Stockard Channing) who raise them, talk a lot about the scope of their power, and occasionally show off by lighting candles with their breath. Otherwise, they can’t wrinkle their noses and accomplish much of anything.


Nobody is made to disappear (though some audience members may be tempted), there are no floating objects (though a stick stirs chocolate on its own) and no men are turned into dogs or frogs (though a frog does throw up a man’s ring). There is a restless spirit, and a wind-jamming exorcism. But overall, the movie has no more practical magic than a souffle chef.

Dunne, and his screenwriters Robin Swicord, Akiva Goldsman, and Adam Brooks (adapting a novel by Alice Hoffman), play down the magic intentionally. Rather than perform cheap tricks, which can be really expensive these days, they’ve concentrated on the emotional trappings of being a witch in the 1990s, when, God knows, there’s already enough name-calling.


Sally (Bullock) and Gillian (Kidman) Owens, an introspective brunet and a fiery redhead, have learned to live with the name-calling that has followed their family for three centuries. What’s harder to deal with is the curse hanging over the head of any man who’d fall for an Owens girl. The curse was put there by Maria Owens 300 years ago, after being stood up at the gallows by her own lover.

The proof of the curse was in the pudding for Sally and Gillian, whose mother died of a broken heart after their father’s death. That tragedy caused Sally to swear off any future romance by casting her own spell for a man who couldn’t possibly exist. Meanwhile, Gillian was champing at the bit to get started, whatever the consequences.

Now, they’re adults, and in trouble. Sally, who’d ignored her oath and fallen in love, is a grieving widow with two children of her own, trying to rescue Gillian from her abusive Bulgarian lover Jimmy (Goran Visnijic). Somehow, in the ensuing blur of tequila, belladonna and violence, Jimmy ends up dead, and the sisters are awkwardly trying to get a pulse through witchcraft.

Soon, there’s an angry spirit, as well as a nosy cop named Gary Hallet (Aidan Quinn) hanging around the Owens place, and the whole community is involved.


Most of what went into “Practical Magic” is serviceable. The script has a jaunty, old-fashioned “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” quality to it; Bullock and Kidman provide spunky star turns, and Channing and Wiest play the eccentric aunts with apt hamminess. It just doesn’t add up to anything--or break down--to anything special. For good or bad, there’s hardly a memorable scene in it.

You’re promised magic, you expect magic.

* MPAA rating: PG-13 for some violence, intense thematic elements and sensuality. Times guidelines: Families take care seeing this together. They’ll be some explaining to do.

‘Practical Magic’

Sandra Bullock: Sally Owens

Nicole Kidman: Gillian Owens

Dianne Wiest: Aunt Jet

Stockard Channing: Aunt Frances

Aidan Quinn: Gary Hallet

Warner Bros. presents in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, a Di Novi Pictures production in association with Fortis Films. Directed by Griffin Dunne. Produced by Denise Di Novi. Based on the novel by Alice Hoffman. Screenplay by Robin Swicord, Akiva Goldsman and Adam Brooks. Executive producers Mary McLaglen, Bruce Berman. Director of photography Andrew Dunn. Production designer Robin Standefer. Editor Elizabeth Kling. Co-producer Robin Swicord. Music by Alan Silvestri. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.

* Playing in general release around Southern California.