The spoon in Sandra Bullock’s coffee goes round and round all by itself. That one, lonely little gag may just be the only supernatural gambit of any wit or imagination in “Practical Magic,” a witch comedy so slapdash, plodding, and muddled it seems to have had a hex put on it. (Did too many screenwriters spoil the brew?) Bullock, as a reluctant spell caster, and Nicole Kidman, as her sorceress sister, sport long, flowing hippie-waif tresses (earnest brown for Bullock, fiery red for Kidman), and neither actress really has much to do apart from standing around and looking terrific under all that hair. Pop-culture witch fables, like “The Witches of Eastwick” or “The Craft,” tend to be amusing schlock entertainments that flirt with cartoon feminism. The most ingenious and subversive of the lot was probably the legendary sitcom “Bewitched,” which had the clever idea of making Samantha’s domestic life, with its literally interchangeable Darrins, silly and innocuous on purpose. When Elizabeth Montgomery twitched her nose in flirtatious triumph, she was the ’60s woman as secret goddess of her own domain.
In “Practical Magic,” Sandra Bullock is the goddess of mopey high school whining. As the result of an ancient curse, her Sally has lost her husband (anyone who falls in love with her will die), and Bullock, who needs a crisp back-talk script like the one she had in “Speed” to bring out her star crackle, looks sullen yet glazed. Based on an Alice Hoffman novel, the movie boasts a story line (and I use the term generously) that’s almost absurdly beside the point. Kidman’s thrill-seeking Gillian hooks up with a bad-egg stud (Goran Visnjic) who tries to abduct the two women. In retaliation, they dose him with belladonna, accidentally killing him, then bring him to life with another spell, only to bury him, at which point he rises from the dead and inhabits Gillian’s body. (No, this doesn’t make any more sense when you’re watching it.) Griffin Dunne, the actor-turned-director, stages this mishegoss as if half asleep, and, just when you’re sure that things can’t get any worse, Aidan Quinn, radiating all the suave charisma of Frank Stallone, shows up as a detective who sweeps Bullock off her broomstick.
“Practical Magic” is woozy and enervated right from the start. You’re grateful for Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest, who play the heroines’ aunts with some of that old mock-scandalous witchy-poo relish. (They seem to be saying, Relax, it’s just spells.) In a scene that’s too embarrassing to be dull, the four get drunk on margaritas and parade through the house, dancing “funky” to that tropical ’70s novelty hit “Coconut.” Scenes like this one have become the postfeminist equivalent of corporate nerds doing the white man’s overbite. The witch sisters get empowered, all right – into wild and crazy girls.