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Practical Magic

Rated PG-13, 110 min. Directed by Griffin Dunne. Starring Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Dianne Wiest, Stockard Channing, Aidan Quinn.

REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Oct. 16, 1998

If you can swing it, the most appropriate way to see Practical Magic would be as part of an evening that also includes dinner at Olive Garden, a tour of Amado Peña's art gallery, and a few pages of the latest Clive Cussler before hitting the sack. The unifying theme, of course, is predictability -- a pervading sense of generic okayness that my Conspiracy Theory of Everything ascribes to the same benignly oppressive force behind the troubling identicality of Olive Garden breadsticks. Granted, bagging on a film as competently executed as Practical Magic may seem odd and mean-spirited given the flood tide of true crap that washes constantly through our local multiplexes. Still, it's just a little too ironic (to quote Okay Pop Singer Alanis Morrisette) that a movie with the word “magic” in its title should be such a perfect example of the difference between competence and inspiration. This adaptation of Alice Hoffman's bestselling novel deals with a modern-day witch family living in a tiny New England burg where their social lot has barely improved since the days of Cotton Mather. Due to a centuries-old curse, lasting love has never been in the tarot cards for the Owens women (their guys always die gruesome deaths). However, the latest nubile generation (Kidman and Bullock) is again bucking the curse, with horrific results for Kidman's Gillian but a faint ray of promise for Bullock's Sally. It's a story well told by pros who know what they're doing. Starting with the savvy casting of Bullock, Kidman, Wiest, and Channing as the wiccan family and continuing on through the sharply focused script by Hoffman and Robin Swicord to the soundtrack by an eclectic lineup of big-time estro-rockers, everything here clicks -- just not very loudly. Even as I was entertained minute to minute by Practical Magic's undeniable buoyancy, sexiness, and visual richness, I found it impossible not to resent the constant willingness to settle for serviceable, off-the-shelf MovieParts. Doing better wouldn't have required any Kubrickesque creative agonies. Maybe just a sharper eye out for lazy dialogue like “It's all about you, isn't it?”. Or a less familiar signifier for family joie de vivre than conga-lining around the house to Seventies pop tunes. Or a little more effort by the normally resourceful Quinn to show why an all-world babe like Bullock would fall for his dim-bulb hick character. Granted, this film may be (okay, almost surely will be) a hit. It's too well-assembled in a Burger King Whopperish way for one to imagine otherwise. Yet it's equally hard to imagine that cinematic fast food like this was what the talented cast and crew had in mind as kids when their first bright, urgent movie dreams were born. My guess is that what they were really hoping for was something more like, I don't know … magic.
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