Return to Me (2000) ***
Directed by Bonnie Hunt. Written by Hunt & Don Lake. Story by Hunt, Lake, Andrew Stern, Samantha Goodman. Photography, László Kovács. Editing, Garth Craven. Production design, Brent Thomas. Music, Nicholas Pike. Cast : David Duchovny ( Bob Rueland), Minnie Driver (Grace Briggs), Carroll O'Connor (Marty O'Reilly), Robert Loggia (Angelo Pardipillo), Bonnie Hunt (Megan Dayton), David Alan Grier (Charlie Johnson), Joely Richardson (Elizabeth Rueland), Eddie Jones ( Emmett McFadden), James Belushi (Joe Dayton), et al. Produced by C.O. Erickson, Melanie Greene, Jennie Lew Tugend. An MGM release. 114 minutes. PG
Is Chicago thriving? More and more movies are shot there. In the real city, not "Chicago-in-Toronto," "Chicago-in-the-Studio," and all that. New releases include "High Fidelity" (a good title) and "Return to Me," (a sappy title) which make good use of their location. They could not be more different in content and style.
"Return to Me" is an old-style romantic comedy, the kind that a lot of adults who may pass up action-violence-sex films, experimental techniques, complicated stories, visual pyrotechnics, etc. would most likely enjoy. Of course, I am not talking here about film-fanatics, viewers likely to see a great deal of pictures in almost any genre.
It does not take a card-carrying movie nut to figure out "RTM." All you need to know is that its stars are David Duchovny (Bob) and Minnie Driver (Grace). The film starts by stressing unhurriedly how very happily married a couple is. Bob owns a construction company. Elizabeth (played by Joely Richardson) is the Lincoln Park Zoo's specialist on big apes.
But since the film's female lead is Ms. Driver and not Ms. Richardson, you may guess right away that Elizabeth will have to die in an accident. That's just what happens.
Cut to chronic bad heart sufferer Grace in a hospital bed, in a life-threatening state. In crucial need of a transplant, she waits almost hopelessly for a heart to become available. One does, at the last moment. Yes, the heart is Elizabeth's.
A year goes by. Grace and Bob do not know each other. She is in fine physical shape. He is inconsolable and almost reclusive outside his work. Grace, of mixed Irish-Italian ancestry, is a charmer. She is the apple of the eye of her grandfather Marty O'Reilly (Carroll O'Connor) who has brought her up. Marty is the co-owner of O'Reilly's Irish-Italian Restaurant (sic), along with his partner, friend and chief cook Angelo Pardipillo (Robert Loggia). Grace waitresses there. The partners dote on Grace, but then everyone around loves her.
In earlier times, Grace was presumably held back from boyfriends by her formerly bad heart. Though healthy now she is haunted by the fear that any future man in her life will stay away when he discovers the scars on her chest.
Charlie, a colleague of Elizabeth's and a great friend of the couple, has been trying in vain to get Bob out of his house. He finally convinces him to meet Charlie and two girls (one a blind date for the widower) at a restaurant. Guess which eatery it turns out to be?
An amusing chain of events brings Bob and Grace together. It's attraction at first sight for both, with love not far behind.
Grace and grandpa live above the restaurant. After closing time, Marty, Angelo and two old cronies invariably get around a table to play cards and such and hold lively arguments about pop singers, baseball and other matters. Now they also become matchmakers for Grace. Egged on, the new twosome meet again and again. The relationship blooms, not sexually however. Grace says nothing about her new heart. Chest makes chaste.
The developments which will lead to the inevitable happy ending are interesting and well concocted. Comedic actress Bonnie Hunt, in the first movie she directs, does a very nice job of avoiding blatancy or supercharged scenes. She also co-scripted. And also has a major supporting role as Megan, Grace's best friend and confidante.
Megan, who has five kids, is married to burly Joe. James Belushi plays him with perfect working-class realism. The small details of life, tasks and duties in such a family come through convincingly, and amusingly. As Joe attempts to get all his children to sleep before he can make love with Megan, he exclaims "I'm trying to put you to bed. And I want to get Mother to bed too!."
"Return to Me" is appealing. It also has a plot that hangs from a thin thread, like Grace's life at the hospital, but the characters are simpatico, believable and well-played. There are several funny tidbits: a major "anonymous" donor to the zoo who keeps advertising his anonymity; Grandpa's having Grace meet a fellow "who also had a transplant" which turns out to be a hair transplant about which the man rambles on comically; an insufferable but comical blind date; and other lighthearted scenes.
I could have done without a small number of setups. The film is not free from clichés. Hollywood has a thing about " hyphenated Americans, mainly Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans and Jewish-Americans. One wonders where colorfulness ends and caricature starts. On the other hand, give the movie credit for picturing Charlie, the African-American friend, with no "minoritisms" whatsoever.
Some details might have been skipped. Before meeting Bob, Grace had sent him a "thank you for my heart" letter. But what revolves around this is murky. The matchmakers' eagerness is overdone. The music track has a corny bit a la "Ave Maria" and a sudden phrase, just a Hallelujah, from Haendel's "The Messiah.". It reminds me of the saying that whenever a movie-maker does not know what to do next, he/she can throw in a Hallelujah.
In Rome, Grace tells her story to a most unlikely waiter. She also schleps from Chicago Bob's gift of a heavy bicycle -- this to a land of sleek, racing bikes. Its only function, combined with some overly cute nuns, is to be an artificial prop for the denouement.
But then, credit the movie for the subtle use of Bob's beautiful dog.