Seasonal rom-coms have been all but killed by those massive ensemble cast movies that started with Love Actually. But in 1998, before all of that forced pandering, we got a Halloween themed rom-com that piggy-backed of the witch trend without falling into the awkward hole that was using teenagers as the stars. Instead it’s a tale of sisterhood and love, of family and magic…that got panned by tons of critics and most of the public. But is this bad rep well deserved or was Practical Magic just the wrong movie at the end of a craze people were getting sick of?
Just like last week, I’ll be using a new system by breaking down what I’m talking about into The Good Candy, aka the great stuff, The Off-Brand Stuff, the kind of bad but potentially salvageable, and The Toothpaste, the stuff that should have been immediately thrown out because it is garbage.
For those not in the know, Practical Magic is very loosely based on an Alice Hoffman novel. It follows sisters Sally and Gillian Owens, whose are sent to live with their aunts after both of their parents die. The Owens are witches, and whoever loves an Owens woman dies within a few years due to an old family curse. Sally falls in love, has kids, but ultimately loses her husband to the curse. Gillian, who has become a bit of a party girl, has fallen for Jimmy, an obsessive man who ends up turning abusive. In an attempt to save Gillian, Sally accidentally poisons Jimmy with belladonna. Terrified of what they’ve done, they try to bring him back with dark magic, only to make this much worse, and things only compound when Gary Hallett, an investigator from Arizona, comes looking for him.
The Good Candy: The chemistry between Sally and Gillian is just delightful — they act like sisters through and through, full of love and bickering and hilariously panicking. Kidman and Bullock work so well together, you could almost buy that they are actually related. They work incredibly well together and it’s a big reason why so many people love the movie. Aunts Frances and Jet are just a hoot, the kind of sweet, weird aunts you always wanted as a kid who were still totally fun to drink with as adult. Stockard Channing and Dianne West really add a level of charm and sweetness to the characters, and makes you wish they’d made a sequel starring just them.
The margarita scene may be totally useless but it honestly one of the best parts of the entire movie. Not only because it turns dark and sinister in the weirdest and chillingest way ever, but because it’s just pure fun right up until the point where it goes wrong. The whole world of magic creates this situation where everything feels safe but also surprisingly tense, where you never know exactly what’s going to happen or how it’ll play out. Proof positive that the writers knew what they were doing with the whole magic deal.
The aesthetic is just gorgeous, the same kind of East Coast old world look Hocus Pocus had more grand and less grit. Every shot in this movie is beautiful, from the Owens house, to the little town, even scenes driving down the highway, there is always something to look at. Honestly, if there were any movie I could live in, it would be this one. Lovingly crafted, well shot, someone get the director of photography all the awards.
Jimmy is the kind of creepy, unyielding, over the top villain that works perfectly in this kind of narrative. His abusive personality is as scary on death as it is in life, and the subtle and disturbing ways he begins to take over the house adds actual elements of horror to this witch-themed comedy. A lot of credit should go to Goran Višnjić for a chilling performance, and the rest to the writers for making something genuinely unsettling in this otherwise very light movie.
The Off-Brand Stuff: Not going to lie, the love interest in the movie is just not very interesting. I mean he’s just sort of the eye candy, there’s not a lot to Hallet’s personality and he doesn’t really do much. Really, he’s just there to be the charming blank person we project our desires onto. That’s not to say that Aidan Quinn is a bad actor — I think the only reason the guy is not a total wash is because Quinn is just so charismatic.
As with most child acting, the kids in this movie had their moments. We get four child actors in this one — Camille Bell and Lora Anne Criswell as young Sally and Gilly, and then Evan Rachel Wood and Alexandra Artrip as Sally’s two daughters Kylie and Antonia. Bell and Criswell are pretty solid, though they have a stilted line read here or there. Wood is a strong actress even at this age, so she’s the best of the bunch, but Artrip is a little too young to really convincingly act, though even she has her moments.
The other moms in Sally’s PTA are a lot of fun, and more than wishing they were left out, I wish there was more interaction, to see how the Owens fit in or are kept out of the town. We see bits and pieces but I think the movie would have benefited from some more of it. The music is good, fitting the feel of the movie well, but none of it is very memorable, which is kind of a shame given the stunning visuals.
The Toothpaste: Oh that ending with the sister bloodsharing in the circle is just a train wreck. It really makes no sense, and there’s no way to make it work out because the curse is already confusing. I’m not sure if they couldn’t figure out how to end it, or if this is an ending that tested well, but it’s what really tips the third act into super saccharine territory. My question is why, after having tons of sisters in the family did no one ever try this? Sally and Gilly are not the most powerful witches in the family, I am sure, so how was this not resolved years ago? We’re just sort of told to go with it as the curse is now lifted because sisterhood and everything will be okay from now on.
Okay, so this is going to be a little bit of a controversial notion, but this is how I feel: the curse is kind of dumb. I get that it’s just there so we can have the plot of love lost and new love found but think about it for a minute. Every single woman born into this family has a man die after they love her, probably at least long enough to ensure the family line. But just imagine that curse one generation down, where Maria’s daughter falls in love only to have him die on her — don’t you think she’d be upset with her mother and try to undo the curse? And it’s all fine and good to be a single mother in the 1990s but think of how these poor women are super stigmatized and would find it hard to find good, sustainable jobs as a woman, let alone a single mom. Also what about women — does the curse work if one of the Owens clan falls in love with a woman? Or what about someone gender fluid or non-binary? Not things we talked about in the 1990s but still pertinent questions. The curse isn’t in the book and with good reason.
Trick or Treat? This movie is like 100 Grand. It’s the candy that you really like but you never see/buy it at the store. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but it has its fans and is generally underrated. It’s a little cheesy, a little over the top, but a really solid, sugary comfort movie that’s as native to fall as changing foliage and pumpkin patches or those terrifying pumpkin coffee drinks that are comforting and weird at the same time.