Practical Magic is at least four different movies in one.
There's the zany magic comedy about a family that produces witches two by two, in pairs of sisters (one redheaded and free-spirited, the other brunette and pragmatic). There's the sweeping romance, which laments the family curse that kills any man a witch loves. There's the revenge thriller, about one of those pairs of sisters (Sandra Bullockand Nicole Kidman) banding together against the man who abuses one of them to her breaking point. And then there is the story of the sisters' loopy witch aunts (Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest), who are only supporting characters in Practical Magic but by all rights could have starred in their own supernatural Nora Ephron franchise.
The scattered script (written by Akiva Goldsman, Robin Swicord, and Adam Brooks) and constantly changing tenor are why Practical Magic received such negative reviews upon its 1998 release. (Also, 1993's Hocus Pocus seemed to sour critical goodwill toward witches for quite some time.) Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman gave it a D, calling it "slapdash, plodding, and muddled." Roger Ebert was just perplexed. "Practical Magic is too scary for children and too childish for adults," he wrote. "Who was it made for?"
The most magical aspect of Practical Magic is that it prioritizes sisterhood
As it turns out, Practical Magic was made for people who can forgive its lack of cohesion and appreciate the movie in pieces — more specifically those scenes Gleiberman dismissed as "cartoon feminism."
However many stories the movie tries to tackle from Alice Hoffman's original novel, the moments that have lived beyond Practical Magic's expected expiration date celebrate sisterhood with a fierce heart and love that blazes across cities. No matter how many times the script changes its tune, Sally (Bullock) and Gillian (Kidman) remain completely devoted to each other. They grasp for each other in the dark, and hold on with a white-knuckled grip.
Whenever Practical Magic remembers that the sisters are the reason it exists, it clicks into a groove that feels exactly right. It Their bond, and the matching bonds reflected in their aunts and Sally's daughters (Alexandra Artrip and a tiny Evan Rachel Wood), ensured that Practical Magic would find life beyond its lackluster reviews.
At its best, Practical Magic is the Thelma and Louise of witch movies
The crux of Practical Magic, messy though it is, comes when Gillian calls Sally to help her escape her abusive boyfriend, Jimmy (Goran Visnjic). Sally knows something is wrong even before she gets the call, and so she's out the door and at Gillian's side in no time.
But Jimmy not only fights back, he takes them both hostage. He keeps Sally driving at gunpoint, possessively slinging his other arm around Gillian's neck in the backseat and slugging tequila from the bottle. The first chance she gets, Sally poisons Jimmy's tequila — and it kills him instantly.
This sequence doesn't follow the exact events of Thelma and Louise, in which Louise (Susan Sarandon) shot a man to keep him from raping Thelma (Geena Davis). But the sentiment is the same. Thelma and Louise had only come out a few years prior to Hoffman's novel, and many Practical Magic reviews are quick point out the similarity in plot (two women kill an abusive man and must subsequently hide the evidence).
But these reviews discuss the similarities like Practical Magic's version is just a pale imitation. It's true that Thelma and Louise, a committed drama, delves deeper into the psychological consequences of killing a person than Practical Magic, which explores the severe ramifications of abusing the Craft between giggly pancake parties.
Beneath Practical Magic's giddy interludes and saccharine soundtrack (Sally's first kiss with her doomed husband is set to Faith Hill's "This Kiss"), though, there are roots in the same kind of fiercely devoted sisterhood that drives Thelma and Louise. All of these women would do anything for each other — and so they do.
The worst thing Practical Magic does is pretend it needs men
For as much as Practical Magic owes Thelma and Louise, it could have learned a crucial lesson — namely, that it didn't need a romantic subplot in any way, shape, or form.
The movie tries very hard to get us to care about the family curse, which goes all the way back to a jilted Salem witch ancestor. The curse presents itself in the form of a "death beetle," which croaks from the beyond as time runs out for its latest victim — a.k.a. whomever the cursed witch has fallen in love with. We learn that the curse caught up to Gillian and Sally's father, causing their witch mother to promptly die from heartbreak. We learn that after swearing that she would never fall in love, Sally does so anyway, and the curse claims him once they have their two daughters and a seemingly perfect shared life.
The grief Sally feels after her husband dies is enormous; it fills every shot with anguish. When she finds out her aunts were responsible for nudging her toward this man in the first place, she swears off magic and buries her powers deep within herself.
Sally's vision of a perfect life — kids, a yard, a rugged husband to garden with — contrasts sharply with Gillian's, which looks more like collegiate spring break. And Gillian's grief after losing Jimmy is messier than Sally's was, wilder and mean, as she struggles to free herself from Jimmy's hypnotic grip. Still, neither Jimmy nor Sally's husband (whose name I have never been able to remember for more than five minutes) matter as specific people. They are strictly plot points, or maybe even beside the point. Anyone the Owens sisters love, or even entertain the thought of loving, are incidental to the family's storied history of putting each other first.
The wrong turn Practical Magic takes, then, is making Sally's renewed love life a focal point after the sisters reanimate — and then rebury — Jimmy's body. Right when the movie could go full steam ahead with the sisters' compelling story, of them trying to start over, it brings in Detective Hallett (Aidan Quinn) to investigate Jimmy's death and sweep Sally off her feet. Whichever comes first.
It's not that I don't want Sally to be happy. She and her magnificent hair deserve all the love in this godforsaken world. But Practical Magic's biggest weakness, by a long shot, is that it thinks "happily ever after" means Aidan Quinn bumbling around a crime scene when Nicole Kidman is right there.
Shoehorning romance into Practical Magic immediately dilutes its power. Bullock does her level best, but trying to sell Sally's instant connection to this uninspiring man is a losing game — especially when her devotion to Gillian outshines everything else onscreen. Hell, the first time we see Sally and Gillian as adults, they're making a blood pact to make sure they die together, so they don't have to live a single day without each other. No man could challenge the kind of chemistry Bullock and Kidman have, Faith Hill soundtrack be damned.
And all the while, Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest sweep around the house, being the best
Gillian and Sally's love swallows Practical Magic whole, but as long as Hollywood is intent on churning out sequels to prequels and reboots of revivals, I would like to take this opportunity to advocate for a sweeping epic devoted to Aunt Franny and Aunt Jet's magical midnight margarita hour.
(I'm reserving my best brocade bathrobe for the midnight release.)