Movies about girl witches, like genteel collections of women's erotica, always seem to promise more than they deliver. The premise hints at adventure, perhaps even danger, but the results are, more often than not, so coy, so bland, so nice. Pop culture broke out in a rash of witches in the '60s, most notably Samantha Stevens of the TV series "Bewitched," who, like Sally Owens (Sandra Bullock), the heroine of Griffin Dunne's "Practical Magic," just wanted to be "normal." Though she possessed all sorts of supernatural powers, Sam preferred to live in the suburbs with her anal-retentive drip of a husband, ghostwriting his ad slogans for rug cleaner and peanut butter.
Currently, Sabrina, a teenage (spiritual) descendent of Sam's, is the heroine of a popular ABC sitcom, and The WB just launched "Charmed," a dramatic series about three sisters who discover their own inherited magical abilities. The 1996 movie "The Craft" told the story of four high school outcasts intent on acquiring a working knowledge of sorcery, the better to turn the tables on the mean kids on campus. The first is inoffensively goofy, the second simply inept, the third the best witch girl movie I've seen. And "Practical Magic" ... well, it's very nice. Like the rest of this new breed of witch story, it's about sisterhood instead of the supreme allure of housewifery, but like all too many witch movies (old and new), it's really just a self-congratulatory paean to banality and shrunken horizons.
The orphaned Sally Owens and her sister Gillian (Nicole Kidman) live in a New England island town with their two elderly witch aunts, Jet (Dianne Wiest) and Frances (Stockard Channing). The "Owens women" have long suffered taunts and cold shoulders from townsfolk who correctly surmise their true natures. They're also afflicted with a curse -- every man who loves one of them (cf, the girls' father) dies an untimely death. Sally casts a spell to protect herself from love by specifying that she must have a guy who can flip pancakes in the air, has one blue eye and one green, can ride a pony backwards, etc., on the principle that such a man couldn't exist. Nevertheless, she succumbs to a counterspell and falls for a grocer, gets married and has two daughters (thereby assuring that the film never runs out of adorable moppets) before her husband gets hit by a truck. Gillian, the "wild" one, takes off to pursue a series of affairs until she hooks up with Jimmy Angelo (Goran Visnjic), a sexy but abusive Slavic bad boy, from whom Sally must eventually rescue her. Soon, a Texas policeman (Aidan Quinn) comes snooping around, trying to figure out what happened to Jimmy (he's buried under the rose trellis).
Except for the bit about Sally's cutesy-wutesy spell, the above description doesn't really do justice to the unrelieved preciousness of "Practical Magic." The women live in a huge white Victorian wedding cake of a house that's so preposterous, it had to be manufactured for the film. They trip around its vast, manicured grounds wearing fetching little gardening gloves, though the place clearly requires a Martha Stewart-scale staff of landscapers. The interiors look like pages from a Pottery Barn catalog, a glossy, ersatz antique decor full of white china, pink roses and heaping bowls of green apples and pears that no one ever eats. The aunts wear big floppy hats, silk scarves and sashes, embroidered kimonos, high-neck Victorian lace blouses and fingerless crocheted gloves -- all at the same time. The little daughters have darling smudges of chocolate frosting on their faces in about 50 percent of their scenes (the aunts serve brownies for breakfast -- that's how untamed these gals are).
And if cookies in the morning isn't enough sheer rebel energy for you, how 'bout that Gillian with her miniskirts and Indian print gauze sarongs and those little round tinted glasses that pseudo-neo-hippie girls can order from Tweeds? Gillian looks like a slumming, but still well-groomed, prom queen when she's running amok, which, for her, consists of shimmying by a swimming pool with a couple of louche guys and staying in motels with Jimmy. Pretty crazy stuff, if you're the kind of girl for whom getting a tattoo and sleeping with a non-WASP constitutes high adventure. As for the corpse in the rose garden -- well that was just a terrible accident. And anyway, he was a serial killer. On the upside, it turns out that the policeman has one blue eye and one green, can flip pancakes in the air and so on (queue the magical sparkly harp music).
Now, if someone wants to make a movie in which a bunch of female relatives spend a lot of time in the kitchen stirring pots, handing down timeless, earthy wisdom and bonding, I say fine: Call it something like "Home Cookin'" and I'll gladly stay away. Why, though, if this is your goal, make a witch movie? Why go to all the trouble of giving your heroine mysterious powers if the grandest dream she can come up with is running her own bath shop? Perversely, it seems the whole point of making Sally powerful is to reassure us that she's never going to do anything interesting with her power. (There's a parallel here in the talents of Channing and Wiest, two highly gifted actresses with nothing better to do in "Practical Magic" than play mischievous biddies -- in short, a waste.)
"There's a little bit of witch in every woman," reads the pandering tag line for "Practical Magic," flattering its female target audience by suggesting that they're invested with a vague glamour sheerly by virtue of being born with double-X chromosomes. If our lives are a little dull and our imaginations stunted, well, that's how we want it. Even if we could command spirits, test the line between good and evil and explore the universe -- even in the fantasy world of the movies -- we'd still choose to potter around the house baking cookies, giggling with our sisters and helping Darrin write ad copy. Maybe, if we were really naughty, we'd have a youthful fling with a swarthy stranger, but mostly we're just content to be the super-special, magical, feminine creatures we are. Maybe there is a little bit of witch in every woman -- but wouldn't it be fun if there were a lot more?