‘Practical Magic’ (1998) Review

Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gillian Owens (Nicole Kidman), descendants of a long line of witches, are raised by their eccentrics aunts after their father is killed and their mother dies of a broken heart. They discover that there is a curse on the family and that any man who loves an Owens woman is doomed to death. Despite being incredibly close throughout their childhood, Sally and Gillian eventually go their separate ways only to have tragic circumstances bring the two women together again as they struggle to fight the vicious ghost of Jimmy (Goran Visnjic), Gillian’s abusive ex-boyfriend, while trying to keep a suspicious detective (Aidan Quinn) from learning the truth about their role in Jimmy’s death.

Now I know Practical Magic is not what you would call a typical rom-com. Gillian’s ‘love’ interest is obsessive and abusive. Sally’s leading man doesn’t appear in the movie until well into the second act. And frankly, a family curse that kills any man who dares to love an Owens woman is not terribly romantic or funny. I would more or less label Practical Magic a romantic dramedy more than anything else, which is why I’m still going to review it… well, that, and I just adore it.

There is something warm and comfortable about watching Practical Magic. The movie takes place in Massachusetts but was filmed in the gorgeous seaside port town of Coupeville, Washington. The Owens home, so integral to the story that it’s practically a character of its own, was specially built for the movie (and sadly torn down after the filming ended). I could probably spend all day watching Practical Magic for the production design alone.

But back to the story itself. Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock are so convincing as sisters that you completely forget that they look absolutely nothing alike. Their bond with one another is evident from the very beginning, even when their two characters are hundreds and hundreds of miles away from each other. It’s this bond that brings them back together when Sally experiences the heartbreak of losing her husband, and again when Gillian finds herself in trouble with her brooding boyfriend, Jimmy. No matter where they are in life, they are always there for each other, even if that means risking their future.

Sally is, of course, a powerful witch who has turned her back on magic after the death of her husband. She wants to live a normal life with her two daughters, but as Aunt Frances (Stockard Channing) points out: “My darling girl, when are you going to realize that being normal is not necessarily a virtue?” Sally opens a botanical shop and refuses to cast magic. She belongs to the school PTA and essentially tries to keep her head down as much as possible while she attempts to fit in.

Gillian, on the other hand, is free-spirited and eager to break loose from the restrictions and judgments of the small town they live in. She’s proud of what she is, and what she can do and is constantly encouraging Sally to embrace her magic. These two paths converge and conflict after Jimmy’s accidental death (and subsequent resurrection and death) as the stress of covering up the murder (and haunting of Jimmy’s ghost) begins to take its toll on the sisters. This is when Gary Hallet (Quinn) shows up, investigating Jimmy’s disappearance, as the man is wanted for an attack on another woman in another state.

There is an instant attraction between Sally and Gary. It’s not incredibly obvious, but Aidan Quinn and Sandra Bullock are able to express it so wonderfully in the way that they look at each other. This is especially evident when Hallet is looking around the Owens house, trying to get a better feel for the kind of women he is investigating. Despite the dire circumstances in which she finds herself, Sally is also clearly smitten with Hallet, while also trying to keep a safe distance from him because of the curse, and how it destroyed her once already. I adored every scene between Sally and Gary. Quinn has such a calming presence in the film, even though he is there to potentially discover Sally and Gillian’s misdeeds (as accidental as they may have been).

The movie does have its humorous moments to lighten the otherwise dark mood. Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest provide the comic relief here as eccentric aunts Frances and Bridget. They are unashamed of who and what they are and do their best to keep Sally and Gillian thriving, though after a while they understandably take a step back to let the two younger women fix their own problems. I would say one of the most memorable parts of the movie would be the Midnight Margaritas scene, when all four women drink in the middle of the night, get drunk and insult each other (lovingly, of course). These four are truly family, and I think it’s the easy banter and chemistry between the actresses that truly sells the movie.

Of course, the only way to banish a terrible boyfriend who can’t seem to take a hint is with the help of one’s girlfriends. Saving Gillian and getting rid of Jimmy once and for all lands on Sally, her friends, and the other women in town who used to throw things at her as a child for being a ‘witch’. But there’s no pettiness here, no grudge-holding from old resentments and bad history. The women come together without question and Sally finally embraces what it means to be different.

The message of family and female empowerment is a strong one in Practical Magic, and I find it just as satisfying as I do watchning Sally finally get her happy ending. I tend to watch this movie almost every Halloween and I don’t see that tradition stalling any time soon.

“But there are some things I know for certain: always throw spilled salt over your left shoulder, keep rosemary by your garden gate, plant lavender for luck, and fall in love whenever you can.”