Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Practical Magic

I'm struggling to find a way to describe Practical Magic (1998). The basic setup is easy. Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock play sisters from a cursed family of witches; any man they fall in love with will die.

So is this a supernatural drama? A romantic comedy? I don't know. The movie lacks focus in story and tone. At times, it plays like a cute comedy about a couple of sisters and their kooky aunts. Other times, it's about doomed romance. There's also the abusive boyfriend who kidnaps the sisters and whom they accidentally kill in their attempt to get away and then bring back his angry spirit. Then there's trying to raise children in a normal household while the town mocks and scorns the family.

Practical Magic, by turns, tries to be funny, sweet, romantic, sad, dark, and tragic, and had it found a better way to all these tones and details together, it might have worked. The end result, however, feels like several episodes of a TV show cobbled together. Maybe the book by Alice Hoffman, which I have not read, is less jumbled, but this adaptation is a mess.

The movie depicts events in the lives of the Owens sisters: Sally (Bullock) and Gillian (Kidman). They've lived with their aunts Frances (Stockard Channing) and Jet (Dianne Wiest) on an island in Massachusetts since their parents died. Their aunts are the ones who explain the family legacy, teach them about magic, and explain the curse.

Sally is the more straight-laced, responsible one. She marries, has two daughters, and runs a business, trying to be normal. Gillian is the free spirit, traveling, proud of her magical heritage, and living on the edge with Jimmy Angelov (Goran Visnjic).

Long story short, Sally's husband dies, Jimmy turns out to be an abusive lout and a serial killer who kidnaps the sisters, but they get away by drugging his booze with belladonna. Unfortunately, they gave him too much, and he dies. His spirit gives them trouble, and hunky state investigator Gary Hallet (Aidan Quinn) turns up looking for Jimmy.

Maybe if this were a TV series, these sequences might have had room to breathe, but in one movie, they coexist uneasily, like a song that keeps jumping into different keys. The unifying thread seems to be the relationship of the sisters - Sally who tries to suppress her magical heritage to be normal and Gillian who embraces it - but they spend many scenes apart, and Sally, despite claims to the contrary, often turns to magic when it suits the plot.

Take for example when they accidentally kill Jimmy. True, they are responsible for his death, but why try to bring him back to life? Why not call the police? I can accept irrational character behavior, but between driving his body back to the house and setting up an elaborate ritual, one of the sisters should have realized that bringing to life an abusive kidnapper who seemed like he wanted to rape and kill them was a bad idea.

This Jimmy business leads to a subplot involving a haunting, a possession, and an exorcism in which the sisters and their aunts recruit other women from their postcard town for help. These other women, who previously scorned the sisters and found them weird, are suddenly on board when Sally admits they're witches. The exorcism itself plays as an uneasy mix between a lark and serious. Moments of would-be poignancy between the sisters are undercut by the giggling PTA moms having a wild and crazy time.

The romance bits, well it's hard to find love potions and magic spells romantic, since by definition, they're encroaching on free will. As a child, Sally casts a spell for the perfect man, adding several attributes she figures will be impossible to find in one person, such as the ability to flip pancakes and having mismatched colored eyes. That way, she figures, she'll never meet a man she'll fall in love with then. Then, the movie gives her a husband who dies, and then Gary turns up. Guess what he can do and what about his eyes is unique?

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