The 1998 Sandra Bullock supernatural romance film Practical Magic is top ten on HBO Max.
Sometimes, everything can seem to be lined up perfectly for a film: an ideal combination of up-and-coming stars, fantastic supporting actors, solid narrative material, directing, even a killer soundtrack. There are no sure things in life, however, and all of those elements do not guarantee success. Such is the case with the 1998 film Practical Magic, the romantic supernatural fantasy movie starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman that bombed with critics and audiences, yet is now currently in the top ten most streamed movie on HBO Max.
Practical Magic stars Sandra Bullock as Sally Owens and Nicole Kidman as her sister Gillian, the descendants of a seventeenth-century witch named Maria who used magic to survive her execution and was later exiled to an island in Massachusetts after being jilted by her lover. Since then, the Owens women have had a complex relationship with both magic and romance, with a curse afflicting them that any man who loves one of them will die before his time. The movie sets this all up with a slow, lingering narration as we see old-timey people terrified of Maria (Caprice Benedetti), the pregnant Maria casting the curse, and then the enormous gothic house the family lives in on the outskirts of a small town.
It is clear that Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman (along with their eccentric aunts, played by Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest) are shunned by the townspeople, who seem to have long memories when it comes to Pilgrim-era scandals. We also see Sandra Bullock’s non-entity of a husband (Mark Feuerstein) die after being hit by a truck, leaving her to raise their two daughters (Evan Rachel Wood and Alexandra Artrip). Meanwhile, it is also clear that despite being publicly shunned and feared, the Owens women are semi-secretly a resource to the women of the town in need of love potions and other witchcraft.
The real heart of Practical Magic is the relationship between Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, who are presented as both devoted to each other and of completely opposite temperaments. Sandra Bullock has largely rejected magic and seems content with small-town life (if also melancholy because of the dead husband thing), while Nicole Kidman is an archetypal 1990s wild child, embracing magic to win the heart of a Los Angeles sleazeball (Goran Visnjic) who ends up being a terrifying monster. First, figuratively speaking, as he proves himself to be a violent avatar of toxic masculinity, then literally, as he becomes an undead spirit possessing Gillian’s body.
Practical Magic is a very odd movie, as the previous sentence indicates. Most of the time, the film wants to be a gentle story about sisterhood, Sandra Bullock learning to love a lawman played by Aidan Quinn, and tequila-fuelled kitchen dance parties. Then, it sometimes swerves into a harrowing tale of murder, supernatural revenge, and the clearly dysfunctional relationship between the two sisters. By the time Aidan Quinn casually reveals that Nicole Kidman’s now-dead ex-boyfriend was a serial murderer and rapist who brands women like cattle before dumping them on the sides of roads, it is very difficult to tell what kind of movie Practical Magic is.
The film was directed by actor/filmmaker Griffin Dunne (who knows something about the supernatural after having starred in 1981’s An American Werewolf in London) and based on a novel by Alice Hoffman, who has since written a number of other related novels. Neither one of those really explain exactly why Practical Magic feels both overstuffed with plot and history, and yet like nothing really happens for enormous stretches of time. It also does not explain why, in the climatic exorcism at the end of the movie, women who just participated in a terrifying magic ritual are instantly ready to start cracking jokes about ex-husbands and doing housework.
Practical Magic lives and breathes in the chemistry between Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, two future Academy Award-winners who do everything they can for this movie. It was dismissed by critics at the time and still holds a dismal 23% on Rotten Tomatoes; it also did not make much of an impression with audiences, with it not even making back its $75 million budget (much of which had to have been the cost of completely manufacturing a spooky old New England home and then demolishing it). However, now that Halloween is not too far away, it seems to be getting a streaming resurrection itself.