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Witchy Women

Don't Be Scared by the Spell of Practical Magic

(This review originally appeared in the Oct. 15-21, 1998, Long Island Voice.)

Reviewed by Beth Hannan Rimmels

I get nervous when a trailer looks good, since these days the trailer is usually the best part of movie. If I like the cast, I worry even more because the higher the expectations go, the more likely the chance for disappointment. So it’s with a great deal of relief and delight that I recommend the enchanting Practical Magic.

It’s the story of Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gillian (Nicole Kidman) Owens, descendants of the witch Maria Owens who got everyone so hot an bothered in a 1600s New England community that she was banished to an island (hanging didn’t work). Maria’s descendants, who seem to be exclusively female, have been cursed with having the men they love die an untimely death.

Young Sally decides to evade the curse by casting spell for a true love that can never exist so she doesn’t end up like her mother, dying of a broken heart. Gillian goes the opposite route and becomes a heartbreaker herself. Neither gets what they expect. Sally falls in love, marries and forsakes being a witch after her husband’s death, much to the disappointment of her Aunt Francis (Stockard Channing) and Aunt Jet (Dianne Wiest). Meanwhile, Gillian falls for the wrong guy, with dire results. However, the mess does bring Tucson investigator Gary Hallet (Aiden Quinn), who appears to match the requirements of Sally’s true love spell, to the door, looking for Gillian’s bad-news boyfriend Jimmy (Goran Visnjic).

If this sounds convoluted, it’s really not in the film, which is based on the novel by Alice Hoffman. Director Griffin Dunne does a much better job staging and pacing this film than his previous effort, Addicted to Love. It also helps that the plot to Practical Magic is not reprehensible like Addicted. Generations of Owens women might make townsfolk nervous with their weird habits, eccentric clothing and way around love spells, but they’re also fun, charming and strangely down to earth. I enjoyed spending two hours with the Owens clan.

The only real problem is that the film is not the laugh-a-minute comedy the trailer leads you think. It has many funny moments, but it’s definitely not a comedy. The woman next to me was openly sobbing when Sally wrote to her sister about her grief over her husband’s death.

While they don’t get as much screen time as their on-screen nieces, Channing and Wiest are wonderful as the chocolate-cake-for-breakfast aunties, and they were clearly having a blast with their roles. Kidman and Bullock had much more dramatic and traumatic scenes to sink their teeth into, with appealing results. Both actresses were bewitchingly likable.

So far Practical Magic hasn’t raised the ire of the real-life witch community, like The Craft and The Witches of Eastwick did. It’s far from a documentary (Does Hollywood have to include a flying scene in every witchcraft movie?), but it’s not as grotesquely stereotyped as previous films. It also helps that the film makes it very clear that magic done recklessly or for bad reasons will always come back to haunt you.

At its heart, the magical aspects of the film are really a parable about love and differences. Eventually the women in town learn that the Owens women aren’t bad, just different, and really only a bit different. They also learn that with or without spells, love is the greatest magic of all, and the only one that lasts.

(A Warner Bros. Release. Directed by Griffin Dunne.)

  1998 Long Island Voice. Accompanying stills 1999 Warner Bros.








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