Rated PG-13 - Running time: 1:45 - Released 10/16/98

If you're interested in a fun, romantic romp through the world of witchery, Griffin Dunne's Practical Magic is a serviceable piece of fluff without the droopy qualities of Sandra Bullock's last vehicle, Hope Floats. Unlike that film, Practical Magic provides some fun in between the serious moments rather than just flooring it straight for the Kleenex factory. Bullock plays pretty much the same character (the beautiful girl who can't get a date), except this time she can make a cup of coffee stir itself. Which is handy when you're working on a crossword or something.

Adapted by Robin Swicord from Alice Hoffman's novel, the story tells us of three pairs of sisters: Sally Owens (Bullock) and her sister Gillian (Nicole Kidman), their two aunts (Stockard Channing and Diane Wiest), and, later, Sally's two daughters (Evan Rachel Wood and Alexandra Artrip). All these women are witches, endowed with certain powers of intuition and the ability to alter the laws of nature occasionally, if needed. They all live in the same house and have a generally good time, but suffer from a family curse: Any man who falls in love with an Owens woman will die an untimely death.

Sally and Gillian deal with this in two different ways. Gillian willingly falls in love again and again, using and enjoying her men as she does her cigarettes. Sally, on the other hand, decides to swear off love forever and protect herself from the loss suffered by their great grandmother, who put the curse on the family in the first place. But she eventually caves, marries a nice man, and has two girls. After he gets hit by a truck, Sally tells her aunts that they are never to teach the craft to her daughters. Grudgingly, they accept this.

But when Gillian gets in trouble with her abusive boyfriend Jimmy (Goran Visnjic) and Sally accidentally kills him, they have to use all their powers to get him back. This plan does not appeal to Sally at all, but neither does hard time. Unfortunately, they blow it, and he comes back as some sort of silver-eyed devil. In other words, he's the same guy with a slightly more annoying personality than before. And silver eyes. Meanwhile, a law officer from Arizona (Aidan Quinn) comes to investigate Jimmy's disappearance, and the girls have to hide the evidence while trying not to swoon from his fabulous good looks. A melee ensues.

As I mentioned, Bullock's performance in this film is basically a Hope Floats clone, including the same wistful semi-depression and the same faded blue jeans. She even uses those geeky glasses when she's trying to hide her unhideable good looks (Julia Roberts does the same thing). But, beautiful or not, she's a good actress, and this role comes to her with ease. Wiest and Channing make a nice couple of "Glenda the Good Witches," and Kidman's blatant sex appeal counterbalances Bullock's sweet-young-thing act. Dunne knows this and uses it to extreme--perhaps too much.

One thing that can be said for Practical Magic is that it brings the witches to life in a way we can identify with. We get the idea from the start that they are just real, normal people who live and love like we all do, but with a few special tricks up their sleeves. And the theme of domestic violence is a clever way to infuse the story with a relevant issue facing today's women. But the plot is predictable and the climax disappointing, since we know what's going to happen long before the characters do. It's a fun story, though, for those who don't want to work too hard for their entertainment. ****

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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