Guilty pleasures: “Practical Magic” (1998)

29 February 2012

Okay, you know me: I have the whole snarky thing down. I’ve never even seen Forrest Gump or Titanic. I can barely bring myself to watch a trailer for a film starring poor Katherine Heigl. I’d rather re-watch that 2-hour, grueling, and explicit film about illegal abortion in Romania — it was excellent — than submit myself to 30 minutes of the Julia Roberts feature, My Best Friend’s Wedding. So what’s the deal with my weakness for Practical Magic, which gets only a 20% approval rate on

Confession: I’ve probably seen it 10 times.

I’ll grant you the obvious: this is not quality filmmaking or screenwriting. The list of goofs and continuity errors is long. The background music is annoyingly cheery and sentimental, even during scenes when it shouldn’t be. It claims to be set in a Salem, Massachusetts-type place but is obviously filmed using the dramatic coast and sunsets of the Pacific Northwest. The film keeps cycling back to themes of love and loss and longing, like any Katherine Heigl film. The resolution to the characters’ problems — an ancient curse on this family of witches — is completely inexplicable. I know. But it always gets past my radar, and I seem to keep coming back.

My latest viewing of it prompted me to wonder about guilty pleasure films.

Why should I feel so embarrassed and apologetic about liking this film? What is it about liking this unabashed chick flick that makes me feel sheepish to confess it? Why does liking this film make me wonder whether I might have some kind of tumor growing smack on my frontal lobe?

(Spoiler alert: at some point below I’m going to talk about That Great House. Also: if you’re eager to know my two favorite insights, get down to the last half of this post.)

Now, there are lots of reasons to like this film. First: the cast. Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest as the kooky old witch-aunts who raise the orphaned sisters Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gilly (Nicole Kidman). Oh, to have aunts like Channing and Wiest!

Moving on, the men-folk are all superbly gorgeous and desirable: Aidan Quinn, Goran Visnjic (slurp!) as the bad boy, and the total mensch Mark Feuerstein as Sally’s short-lived husband. Even Sally’s little daughters (Evan Rachel Wood and Alexandra Artrip) manage to be believably appealing.

Also, no one should underestimate Sandra Bullock’s appeal. The critic David Thomson jokes that she’s been inducted into the Hall of Eternal Likeability. This induction occurred in 2009, Thomson quips, when Bullock won an Oscar for Best Actress (for The Blind Side) and a Golden Raspberry (aka “Razzie”) for Worst Actress (in All About Steve) — and she appeared to both ceremonies “with the same easygoing attitude that guesses she didn’t quite deserve either award but that knows her life has always been something of a gamble.”

I’ve always liked Bullock, and have a particular weakness for her skills in slight rom-coms (While You Were SleepingMiss Congeniality), again in spite of myself. How does someone possessed of such exceptional beauty seem to be someone I’d be friends with? How does she manage to seem convincingly the ugly duckling for even one second? How does she nevertheless seem to be at ease in her own skin?

Two things I always notice in Practical Magic: she goes bra-less in most of the scenes. And although she’s thin as a rail (of course), her body looks real — especially her big, strong legs. Who wouldn’t like a beautiful woman with healthy-looking thighs who skips the bra most of the time?

Okay, now that I say that out loud, I’m starting to see where some of my sheepishness comes from.

Just because I like all the actors is no guarantee I’ll like a film, however. Lots of good actors have appeared in terrible films. Remember my refusal to see Titanic despite the fact that it stars Kate Winslet, who’s in my Top 5 current favorite actors?


In thinking about my perverse attachment to an ostensibly weak film led me to scour The Land of Blogs for insight, and here’s what I found: us ladies love that house. Love it.

This very fact makes me embarrassed … because I’ll admit I love that house too. Shouldn’t I feel like I’ve been manipulated?

Now, just because a girl confesses a propensity for nest-building and a weakness for a good kitchen should not make you presume she wants nothing but housework and a hubby who brings home the bacon. Virtually everyone I know has found themselves susceptible to the house porn shown to us on those real estate, cooking, and bedroom re-design shows on cable TV. And when I call this porn I fully admit to have had unholy desires for that one hunky handyman who seems to know his way around every power tool known to man. So yeah, I love this house — and I’m not the only one.
Entire websites appear to be dedicated to screen capture shots of the kitchen and/or attached greenhouse. I get it. Who wouldn’t want all that great tile, lots of cupboards, big central kitchen table, and that awesome stove?

There’s so much room here for those kinds of decorations you could never be bothered with because you’re a Busy And Important. Big wooden bowls of pears or round loaves of bread. Cunning little bottles of herbs and witches’ potions. Scattered potted plants that need to be kept alive somehow. This is not the kind of house I could manage (or clean) in real life.

But I think the reason why this kitchen/ greenhouse/ dining area has hit some kind of world-wide Lady G-Spot is because these rooms are the location for so much of the film’s drama. Just like in real life, except these settings are a lot more attractive than our cramped kitchens. Gilly and the little girls whip up a Go Away spell to put into the maple syrup; Gilly and Sally try to bring the terrifying Visnjic back to life (with a spray-can of whipped cream, I say as I shake my head woefully); Sally and the hunky Arizona investigator Aidan Quinn have a special moment in the sunroom/ greenhouse.

(Mental note: must procure sunroom/ greenhouse so I, too, can have special moments with Aidan Quinn.)

I’m joking, of course. Although some bloggers seem eager to transform their own homes into Practical Magic-style palaces, I say that sounds like too much work. In fact, this leads to my most important insight: no matter how appealing, that house doesn’t fill me with consumer desire — I like the idea of the house, and I like it for reasons other than the fact that it looks good. Another film might have used the same house and sunroom and still failed to capture people’s imaginations (i.e., mine).


So here’s my big realization: this film gets me every time because it portrays such rich and important relationships among women, even when they’re flawed. The warmth of the house matters when Sally and Gilly lie under the covers together, healing one another’s wounds, or when they go to the kitchen to exorcise demons. Ultimately the reason I like the house is the fact that I am so impressed that the film takes for granted the intense connections amongst this group of women.

The house feels so warm and comfortable because that’s where the film portrays the most important plot points, bringing together the warmest of relations between the characters. It’s those moments in the film that get me every time. Scenes that convey the close communal and familial relations that encompass a kind of closeness that isn’t reducible to something as simplistic as “love.”

There’s a hard edge to some of this as well. Women who are very close to one another also piss each other off, or they say things that hit nerves even if they have no intention of hurting anyone. One of my favorite random scenes in the film, in which they all blend up some Midnight Margaritas and dance around the house (who hasn’t been there?) is immediately followed by a scary scene at the dinner table, when no matter how good their mood, none of them can keep from spewing bile at one another — and it takes a while for them to realize the ugliness of this weird moment.

Ah, the scene of female bonding and mutual support … and pissing each other off. Was there ever a time when I didn’t imagine growing old, living in a big house (or neighborhood) with my sister and a bunch of my best old-lady friends, all cooking and gardening and exercising together? I remember being stunned to learn that every single one of my friends has the same fantasy. It’s not that we don’t like men — some of us are partnered up with them, after all. It just seems so natural to have tight, mutually-constitutive relationships with women, especially as you grow older.

All the more eerie to find that this film explicitly imagines that scenario for its characters, too. “We’re gonna grow old together!” Gilly says to Sally when they’re teenagers, on the night when Gilly is about to run off with some guy, and the unglamorous Sally stands there in her awful bathrobe, stringy hair, and gigantic glasses. “It’s gonna be you and me, living in a big old house, these two old biddies with all these cats! I mean, I bet we even die on the same day!” Tell me, isn’t that your secret dream, too?

For Sally it is. “Do you swear?” she asks her sister.

In the end I think it is that female closeness that gets me about this film and which makes me slightly embarrassed to admit it — because I suspect that by using some kind of dark magic, the filmmakers cooked up a heady brew of fine men-folk, house porn, and scenes like Midnight Margaritas explicitly to fly under my critical radar and keep bringing me back. I fear my uncritical affection for this film because it feels manipulative to me, not a genuine dedication to women’s relationships and good houses above & beyond women’s relationship to men. I feel embarrassed that what I had long believed was an unrealistic and slightly embarrassing fantasy — that my friends and I would all grow old together — has been packaged into a very pretty filmic production for me to watch. Shouldn’t I feel all the more guilty about this pleasure?


But there’s one other reading that works even better for me, and I lift this directly from the great documentary The Celluloid Closet. This insight goes something like this: I watch and appreciate Practical Magic not for what it is but for all that I read into it, all that speaks to me beyond the surface. I don’t see Midnight Margaritas as a throwaway scene or as instrumental for forcing Sally and Gilly to deal with their mistakes. I read into it a world of intense female closeness that I rarely get to see onscreen. What gives me pleasure in this film is what I imagine in between the lines of its essential mediocrity.

I remember so vividly Susie Bright, one of the commentators in The Celluloid Closet, describing how she spent her youth combing through old movies just to get to a single scene that seems a little bit queer. For LGBTQ persons who saw virtually no one who looked like them onscreen, “It’s amazing how, if you’re a gay audience and you’re accustomed to crumbs how you will watch an entire movie just to see a certain outfit that you think means that they’re a homosexual. The whole movie can be a dud, but you’re just sitting there waiting for Joan Crawford [in Johnny Guitar] to put on her black cowboy shirt again.”This is ultimately the reading that allows me to feel pleasure in watching this film without much guilt. It’s discouraging to realize that on some level, what I get from Practical Magic is what I don’t get very often onscreen: happy, complex, and intense relationships among women that aren’t just about appearing sexy and finding a man. I very seldom get to see onscreen relationships that look like the ones I enjoy with my friends and family. Sure, the movie concludes with a happy kiss between Sandra Bullock and Aidan Quinn — not that there’s anything wrong with that — but I’m arguing that the whole package sparks a happy endorphin rush for far different reasons.

And finally, let’s also not forget that this movie is about a family of witches. Witch being such a stand-in for bitch, as well as conveying all manner of notions about women’s powers, both dark and light. This film probably flies under my radar in part because it’s about women who possess powers that they can choose to use (or not). The false cheeriness of the music and the generally lame spells might well downplay as much as possible any sense of real danger — and probably seek to undermine objections from crazed evangelicals who might see this film as the work of the devil. Nevertheless, I’d argue that the subject matter can’t help but speak about power.

I see it as metaphorical. This is about women’s power — and their power in numbers. I may be trying very hard here to stop feeling so guilty about my appreciation for this film, but this works for me:

  • terrific cast
  • eminently likeable lead
  • great range of attractive men-folk
  • fantastic house
  • rich portrayals of women’s relationships
  • the movie facilitates queer readings against and/or alongside its mainstream messages
  • it’s about women’s power, and their power in numbers

I welcome your thoughts, quibbles, and good-natured derision for my poor taste in film!


17 Responses to “Guilty pleasures: “Practical Magic” (1998)”

  1. JustMeMike Says:

    Strange – in 1998, it would have required chains and a tractor to pull me into see this one. It took me a few years to see Titanic as well. And I didn’t see Gump in the theaters either. For that matter, 1998 was a year that the movies theaters didn’t get a lot of my money. In fact they got hardly any. I saw Saving Private Ryan much after its theatrical release.

    But these days my perspectives are greater – both figuratively and literally as I’m not living in Manhattan these days. And my interest in films has intensified.

    Not counting The Wizard of Oz or Harry Potter – the last film involving witches that I saw was The Witches of Eastwick and that one – I saw in the theaters..

    I guess that will all change – I mean if you could see it ten times then I should see it once.

    • Didion Says:

      “Chains and a tractor” — that’s exactly why I’m so snarky in general about movies like this. Yet here I am, writing 2500 words about why I might like a film in which Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman are witches. Argh!

      But there you have it. I think I’ve figured out the appeal — for me, anyway. JMM, you’re being very nice to me with this comment, and I hope you don’t see the film and immediately curse my name!

      • JustMeMike Says:

        Well I invested in half of the 104 minutes. It became time to call it a night at the 52 minute mark – if I wanted to get something of a comment posted. Gillian had just smashed the bottle of the magic elixir – or was it snake oil – into the kitchen sink.

        It wasn’t that you were recommending the film that got me to watch it – I figured you wrote a piece that was a beautiful 2500 words – that was both a homage as well a confession of ‘guilty pleasures’ – so that was enough of a hook.

        It started out amiably enough – as you said Salem, MA becomes a coastal town in Washington State – and seemed a nice fantasy. Then a half hour in it made another turn and started to become a black comedy.

        I liked the house too – at this stage of my life I’m surprisingly vulnerable to what you labeled house porn. I was also struck by how much Stockard Channing reminded me of an older Liz Taylor.

        But I have no way to connect to the sisters deal or the nieces and grandnieces and aunts deal. I grew up with just parents and a single brother. My Mom had two sisters but the three of them together were known collectively as The Fighting Cohn’s. Arguments at the drop of a hat and before the hat even hit the floor. One was even called The General behind her back.

        Anyway – I’m not cursing that you pointed me towards the film. Griffin Dunne put up some pretty pictures but I’ve never been much of a Nicole Kidman guy. I like Ms Bullock – she seems to work continuously doesn’t she? My reactions to Aidan and Goran were never going to have enough of an impact to even be measured. I wonder why a guy was chosen to direct? Got an answer for that?

        So in lieu of a full review – we’ll turn this one in.

      • Didion Says:

        @JMM: How incredibly sweet that you would watch it! I’d love to know what you think of Bullock (even if you agree that she’s been in some stinkingly bad films). I find her ridiculously appealing.

        And yeah, I just love Stockard Channing. She always looks like she’s got something very wicked on her mind.

        and @Naomi, you’re probably right about the academe, but I think it’s also the fact that I’m so snarky about most cheesy rom-coms and overwrought melodromances (I genuinely have no desire to see Titanic) that I feel this affliction for Practical Magic reveals that in the end, all us ladies are susceptible to pretty people kissing inside great houses. I fret that I might be letting down my fellow women. It’s only partly the fact that I think my peers will look down on me — I think it’s actually that I know in any other circumstance I’d be snarky about this one too.

        Besides, I think it’s kind of interesting to plumb one’s own guilty pleasures. I’m not sure I can think of another film I feel quite so guilty about liking.

  2. Very thoughtful post with much going on. It was enlightening to see where you began then conclusion about women’s power and how they do/do not come together. So central to why politically we continue to get stuck, have to re-fight old battles.

    Have to read this more times. Please do not feel guilty about your pleasures. Perhaps a downside of life in academe? Just saying.

  3. la redactora Says:

    Titanic, beyond being my first pg-13, is a complete boreathon.

    This is the only worthwhile scene in the whole film:

    There, now you don’t ever have to watch Titanic. My friends and I used to have toe-standing competitions. I’m sure we were not the only ones.

    It was a global phenomenon, if nothing else. Apparently, it was hugely popular in Kabul. I think it must have come out there before it ambled its way to the blockbuster in Hixville Notch, or at least before we finally made it to the top of the waiting list. Oh, I waited ages and ages to see it, just so I could talk about it like my classmates. Ha.

    • Didion Says:

      Ha! this is why I spend time blogging — to get great emails like this from Hixville Notch (which is how I’m always going to refer to it from here on out)!

      I saw just enough clips from the film to know that it was not for me. Despite the magnificent Winslet. Many thanks for condensing the entire thing down to That One Great Scene — all I needed.

      • la redactora Says:

        Just FYI, Hixville Notch is my code name for any small town north of Concord. I am not at all attempting to cast aspersions on dear Dixville, or at least not Dixville in particular. But yes, we are so rural it hurts sometimes. And oh did I sympathize with your post on access to films, especially the smaller ones which just never to seem to make it up here.

  4. Dienna Says:

    “It just seems so natural to have tight, mutually-constitutive relationships with women, especially as you grow older.”

    Yes, there’s something about strong female friendships that feels so warm, welcoming, and empowering.

    I saw this one many, many years ago and may not remember all the fine details, but I remember having high hopes for this movie and ended up being disappointed. It didn’t pull me in like I expected it to. What saved this movie from being utterly unwatchable was exactly what you mentioned above, those strong female relationships depicted on screen.

    • Didion Says:

      This movie will not get better on re-viewing, I suspect! Who can tell why I have the capacity to look past all its horrors to see the things I want to see?

  5. “(Mental note: must procure sunroom/greenhouse so I, too, can have special moments with Aidan Quinn.)”


    Awesome post—glad I saved it for a sleepless night. I keep meaning to write my own guilty-pleasures review, but in my case it would be either Notting Hill (!) or The Breakfast Club (!!), both of which I’ve also seen a dozen times or more. Ye gods. You have bigger ovaries than I do, chica. Brava!

    (PS I have to say I think you will seriously regret the Aniston/Rudd film. Just a hunch. I love him always, and often her; but this particular vehicle looks like a real dud.)

    • Didion Says:

      I would love, love, love to hear your thoughts about those movies, because I have a sneaking suspicion that these guilty pleasure movies say a lot about us — maybe even more than these idiosyncratic top ten lists that people like me insist on creating. I’d much rather hear people talk about what they love and why they feel they shouldn’t love it.

  6. Jay Says:

    Practical Magic is also one of my guilty pleasures, and I also dislike movies like Titanic. I think I am drawn to the movie for the same reason that I was drawn to cheesy tv shows like Buffy. Like you pointed out, they show strong relationships between women, and the women aren’t packaged for the male gaze (sure, they are all beautiful, but they aren’t dressed up like sexpots. Even Nicole Kidman’s character, who ostensibly plays the “bombshell”, is depicted in a human way. She shows agency and doesn’t exist just to be looked at or desired by the male characters). Furthermore, women’s stories are usually missing from mainstream movies. Even if there is more than a token woman, the movie is rarely about the female characters. So, my craving for stories about women helps me gloss over the silly hollywood depiction of magic and uneven plot in Practical Magic

    • Didion Says:

      I’m so glad to hear it! I still think there’s something more to be said about guilty pleasure movies and what they reveal about us. A friend told me recently that she’s watched the kissing-in-the-rain sequence from The Notebook 150 times. She explained that she can’t watch the whole film — it’s too manipulative — but that scene alone worked for her again & again. I wanted to know, what is it about that kissing that brings you back over & over? She just said it was hot. I feel like there’s a much more interesting Lady G-Spot that deserves careful anaylsis!

  7. Traxy Says:

    House porn! Yes, that’s exactly it! It’s beautiful, but then I like old houses with towers and three floors. Like you say, though, better in theory than in practice, because imagine having to do the cleaning there … hrm.

    Loved your analysis of the film. Maybe the relationship thing is something that draws me to this film too, I haven’t really thought about it that way. But it rings true. 🙂

  8. Pam Says:

    I’m also a woman who loves that poor demolished house. And house porn, why have I never realized that? I’ve heard of food porn, but not house porn. I love interior design magazines but was never into the tv shows. “(Mental note: must procure sunroom/ greenhouse so I, too, can have special moments with Aidan Quinn.)” LOL!

    Your asking people their thoughts on the film made me want to google an old review I wrote of the film so I did. I’ve seen it way more than 10 times, it’s my favorite film. I’d forgotten what I wrote, but I remember now that my focus was love and faith, not strong female relationships as yours was. I definitely see that in the film, and have had two strong female relationships in my life, but the rest have been difficult for me, so I saw other things (as we all see our own unique things) due to hardships that I’ve had. I’m not religious, but for me faith and love are very important in life, and that’s what I saw in the film. Sally’s fear of opening her big heart, her love for her sister, her husband and family, her desire for Gary to believe in her, her aunts desire for her to believe in her own magic, not look down her nose at it… Sally starts out with straight hair, which gets curlier as the film progresses, and her clothes get darker and there are less of them (with that black strap top in the important scenes saving her sister), with her final transition at the end donning a witches outfit, which for me signifies her opening up and accepting herself. The song which plays during her kiss near the end says “I turned around, and the water, was closing, all around, like a glove, like the love, that had finally, finally found me.” For me this film is about Sally’s return to love, and a return to her faith in love and faith in herself.

    Thanks for the great post! Here is my old one-
    Practical Magic Movie Review
    TheMovieLady posted Jul 19, 2009 | views: 212 | Tags: love, faith

    I could quite possibly be very biased in my opinion of this movie, seeing as how it’s my all time favorite, but every movie reviewer is ultimately going to be giving their own personal opinions so, here goes.

    The major reason why I love this movie is because of the idea that, even if you’re not a witch… you can still enjoy magic and romance in your every day life. Who hasn’t felt like there wasn’t anything to look forward to? That life was down in the gutters and seemed like it was going to just keep going down? Or even, that something really REALLY bad has happened and you don’t know how you’re ever going to get over it? This reminds me of a fabulous quote from You’ve Got Mail “People always say that change is a good thing, but what it really means is that something that you didn’t want to happen, has happened.” This is so true. When people say that they’re really just trying to cheer you up, and they don’t really KNOW that the change is going to be a good thing. This movie has no shortage of seemingly bad changes. Husbands seem to die from a family curse, two sisters accidentally seem to kill a man, and the town seems to have it out for these strange women they just don’t understand.

    The movie begins with the Owens’ family ancestor Maria about to be hanged for being a witch. After her lover leaves her stranded she puts a curse upon herself that death will come to any man who dares love an Owens woman. Who hasn’t done rash things after being jilted by an ex lover? This curse is then fulfilled when we see young versions of Sandra Bullock (Sally Owens) and Nicole Kidman (Gillian Owens) going to live with their aunts Fran (Stockard Channing) and Jet (Dianne Wiest) after their mother and father die. From this point on the sisters take very different directions in life. Sally hates love, while Gillian is in love with it. Later, after a little help from the aunts, Sally finally finds love and settles down with two beautiful miniature versions of Sally and Gillian. Can anyone see the repeating patterns of family cycles here yet? Then BOOM! Mr. wonderful husband dies and Sally has lost her zest for life. Gillian meanwhile is having a blast loving life and men by the bucketful, until she meets the wrong man (Jimmy Angelov) played by Goran Visnjic, one of many wrong men but this one is definitely WRONG. And who hasn’t fallen for the wrong man? You can almost forgive her when you see Goran’s smoldering demeanor and hear his husky accent. The movie picks up its pace here and doesn’t slow down as Gillian gets in trouble and Sally goes to bail her out. A man accidentally dies in the process and its starting to look like this family has the worst luck in the world! But things start to turn around as a late coming love interest in the form of the sweet and strapping Officer Gary Hallet (played by Aidan Quinn) shows up to solve the mystery of the missing man, as well as pursue some secretive personal motives.

    No more spoilers here but I will let you in on a little secret, the overall message for the end of this movie as well as the movie as a whole, is love and faith conquers all. Watch it when you’ve lost some of yours, always picks me right up 😉

  9. Linda Says:

    I LOVE PRACTICAL MAGIC!!!! I get so captivated that I pay no attention to the goofs (what goofs)! It doesn’t hurt that I am a hopeless romantic. It also doesn’t hurt that Aidan Quinn is the romantic lead/love interest!! My Mom and I don’t have many things that we like in common but we both love this movie AND Aidan Quinn!! It was so disappointing that it didn’t seem to be on TV at all this Halloween season! How disappointing! Don’t feel bad at all about loving this movie – you are NOT alone!! We are Kindred Spirits, pun intended!

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