As if by some spell of its own, Practical Magic drops out of memory, scene by scene, as you’re watching it. A calculated chick flick, it sells witchcraft as a snuggly blanket of female bonding, yet the characters’ supernatural powers aren’t put to much use except to attract or repel men. The fact that the two heroines are such dithering dummies certainly doesn’t help. Neither does the movie’s schizoid tone, which veers between tired humor (there’s the obligatory dancin’-to-the-oldies scene) and bland swipes from horror films like The Exorcist and Pet Sematary.
There’s a centuries-old curse on the Owens family: Every time an Owens woman falls in love with a man, he dies. (If an Owens lesbian, say, falls in love with a woman, does the curse still apply? The movie’s no help on this point.) So two Owens sisters, Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gillian (Nicole Kidman), have dealt with the curse in their own ways: Sally throws herself into blissful marriage and motherhood, while Gillian flits around from bed to bed. Will the movie be about how witchcraft has influenced the sisters to grow apart while still bonded by their common curse? Not really. Will the movie be about much of anything? Uh, no.
Sally’s husband gets killed, and Gillian gets involved with some sort of deranged Transylvanian biker dude (Goran Visnjic) — just what we always wanted: Vlad the Impaler as a toxic boyfriend. Sally raises her two little daughters with the help of her two aunts (Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest, who offer the movie’s only fresh moments); Gillian tries to get away from Vlad, but the sisters realize that nothing short of drinking a belladonna cocktail will stop him. He dies and comes back and dies and comes back; sadly, the movie dies around the same time he dies the first time, except it never returns from the grave.
Literally every scripted word (by Robin Swicord, Akiva Goldsman, and Adam Brooks, from Alice Hoffman’s novel) and every onscreen second (directed by Griffin Dunne) having to do with the dead-alive psycho boyfriend is ridiculous. Through circumstances too stupid to relate here, the sisters find themselves trapped in a car with the psycho; he forces Sally to drive while he terrorizes Gillian in the back seat, threatening to brand her with his ring. At one point, after they’ve given him some tainted vodka, he gets out of the car to take a leak — and they sit in the car like morons and wait for him to get back in! I sat there going “Okay, why don’t they just drive away? Very simple: key in the ignition; foot on the gas; bye-bye, psycho.”¹ But no, they act stupid in this scene and in many others to come.
After the psycho has been buried out in the garden, a detective (Aidan Quinn) drops by to investigate; he’s been looking for the psycho, who’s wanted for pretty much everything. But the sisters’ stupidity must be contagious, because he wanders around looking baffled even after Sally all but confesses. Unless this is your first movie, you’ll be able to guess why the detective is in the movie: he’s the impossible ideal guy that the girl Sally once cast a spell for, thinking that such a man couldn’t exist. One of the ideal traits she’d specified was that he have one blue eye and one green one; Aidan Quinn’s eyes have always been his most striking feature, which calls all the more attention to the fact that, well, they’re both blue.
Practical Magic makes no practical sense, and it pales in comparison to a truly original witch movie like George Romero’s Jack’s Wife (its DVD title is Season of the Witch) — a 1972 minor masterpiece you’ve probably never heard of, because it doesn’t wrap itself in cozy sisterhood themes and it’s about something besides man trouble. Practical Magic has something to annoy just about everyone: feminists of either gender, Wiccans, or just people expecting a good movie. The citizens of Salem, too, will grumble for years — or at least until the next dumb witch movie rolls in.
¹Someone pointed out that he takes the car keys with him. Duly noted. The movie is still idiotic.