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Bell, Book and Boring

As witch movies go--even lighthearted, supposedly comic witch movies --Practical Magic is conspicuously lacking in supernatural phenomena. There are no ritual murders, resurrected warlocks or conventions of hags bent on turning the world's children into mice. Director Griffin Dunne (1997's Addicted to Love) can't scare up a single bedeviled infant or evil spirit living in a Ouija board. He manages a single flask of poisonous belladonna and one boiling cauldron, and his principal casts a spell that retrieves a man from a long distance. But wouldn't you know it? The movie then falls short in the flying-in-the-light-of-the-full-moon department: At the end of the proceedings, half a dozen women clad in pointy black hats drop off the roof of an old house in Massachusetts and float unceremoniously to the ground, just before the credits roll. And that's it.

Kindly Angela Lansbury provided scarier stuff in Disney's Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). What kind of magic, then, does Practical Magic mean to conjure up? Well, for one thing, it provides many full-frame, big-eyed closeups of its two stars, Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. These are actresses without the benefit of big warts on their noses, and their hairdos make them look like they just came out of a salon on Rodeo Drive. So if the viewer concludes that Practical Magic--an uncommonly cheery witch movie--is a lot more interested in flaunting Hollywood glamour than it is in casting spells, the viewer is right. Following a recent screening of the picture, I overheard a star-struck man observe: "That Nicole Kidman sure is one beautiful witch. And Tom Cruise has her all to himself."

Loosely adapted from a pop novel by Alice Hoffman, this enervated piece of business creaks along on a scrap of plot. The Owens sisters, Sally (Bullock) and Gillian (Kidman), represent the most recent generation of a long line of witches with their roots in (where else?) picturesque Massachusetts. The family lives with a curse: Any man who falls in love with an Owens girl is doomed to an early demise. Everybody else in town hates and fears them, of course: Put "witch" on your resume within a hundred miles of Boston and you're sure to have a civil-rights problem.

At one point the movie's three screenwriters (Robin Swicord, Akiva Goldsman, Adam Brooks) tell us that various Owenses have been around for 200 years; a little while later it's 300. Hey, what does the odd century matter? In any event, Gillian turns out to be the redheaded wild child of the sister set--chain-smoker, lots and lots of shady boyfriends and plenty of nights in distant honky-tonks and motels. Sally is the square and straight one: Despite the family curse, she marries a local fruit merchant, has a couple of kids and, instead of using her alleged powers, manufactures hand lotion and goes to PTA meetings. Bor-ing.

The screenwriters never bother to explain why Sally continues to live with her two florid, cackling aunts (Dianne Wiest and Stockard Channing). Aunt Jet and Aunt Frances, after all, are just crazy for white magic, and their influence on Sally's kids is profound: The little girls seem destined to carry on the Owens tradition for another half-century or so. On the other hand, Wiest and Channing, both done up like bag ladies in thrift-store hats, will probably want to forget this experience as soon as possible.

By the way, did we mention that Sally's husband, the fruit merchant, gets hit by a truck in the first reel? And that the movie forgets him before the body is cold?

In the interest of plot advancement, Gillian gets in a little jam down in Arizona when her current boyfriend, a Transylvanian named Jimmy (Goran Visnjic), smacks her around. That brings Sally to the rescue, via airplane rather than broom. Then the evil Jimmy kidnaps both sisters, and they're forced to kill him--twice. Please don't get too curious about this: They kill him twice, and that's that.

But we're not done yet. From Arizona to Massachusetts comes a cowboyish and extremely nosy police detective named Hallet (Aidan Quinn), who turns out to be the man of sweet Sally's dreams (despite the recent death of her husband) and who pitches in to help when the evil spirit of Gillian's dead boyfriend jumps inside her body, sort of like when the devil jumped inside Linda Blair that time in Washington, D.C. The scene in which good ol' Jimmy is temporarily expelled from the writhing Gillian is as close as Practical Magic gets to an authentic special-effects scare, but it's pretty weak stuff.

Next we have an unexpected (and completely unbelievable) surge of sisterhood. Because Sally, her aunts and her daughters need a full coven of witches for the ritual that will liberate her sister from occupation, a calls goes out to the local women who have always despised the Owens family, and these civilians respond in real community-spirit fashion. Joining their brooms in a circle and chanting incantations, every woman in town comes to see that "there's a little witch in all of us." Will Sally finally get her man? Will Gillian head to, say, Miami for a little sun and surf? If you must, pay to see Practical Magic and find out.

Go at your peril: The moon may be full, but there's not much happening in the moonlight.

Practical Magic.
Directed by Griffin Dunne. Written by Robin Swicord, Akiva Goldsman and Adam Brooks, from a novel by Alice Hoffman. Starring Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman and Aidan Quinn.

 
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