In the hunt
On the surface -- and that's all the movie is, a puddle instead of a lake -- Return to Me is a hackneyed, silly, slapdash film. Whole scenes look, if not out of focus, then at least a little blurry, as though we're missing something just out of frame. And it feels like entire hunks of the movie have been lifted out, trimmed for time without caution or care. One minute, two strangers (David Duchovny and Minnie Driver) are meeting, exchanging romantic glances, sizing each other up. The next, they're holding hands and falling so casually in love, it appears they've been together forever. Then, why waste time, when the ending is as inevitable and obvious as the end credits? Cut to the chase; let the love (and tears) begin.
Comedian, actress (Jerry McGuire), and Friend of Dave (Letterman) Bonnie Hunt's directorial debut (which she also co-co-co-wrote) might best be described (if not dismissed) as a most guilty of pleasures -- soon enough, it will be sentenced to life on Cinemax. Its setup is so ridiculous, it's almost obscene: A man loses his beloved wife in a car accident, only to fall in love with the recipient of his dead wife's heart -- only he doesn't know that which thump-thumps inside his girlfriend is the heart that once beat only for him...and does, of course, again. Think of this as a tear-jerking Twilight Zone episode -- or a pilot for a new Fox series. Or, actually, both. It does, after all, co-star David Alan Grier.
But the outrageousness of the plot -- which manages to include a gorilla in need of a new home and Jim Belushi at his most likeable -- is also its redemption, if only because Hunt manages to underplay it so deftly that you sort of accept it, just as you accept a universe in which it's possible for Meg Ryan to switch bodies with a decaying old man. (By comparison, Ryan's Prelude to a Kiss makes Return to Me look like a documentary.) What helps Return to Me transcend its genre (fantasy weeper-laffer) is its clumsy nonchalance: The whole film stumbles so awkwardly toward its ending, you can't help but take pity on it. It's like a child taking its first steps -- so ungainly but also so impossibly, so lovably cute.
Return to Me is built upon tiny, seemingly insignificant events that add up to a rather surprising, satisfying whole. There are moments when you forget about its ludicrous setup and fall into cozy, familiar territory. When architect Bob Rueland (Duchovny) comes home from the hospital early on, his tuxedo covered in the blood of his wife Elizabeth (Joely Richardson) just killed in a car accident, he can barely even make it through the door. With his dog curled up beside him, he collapses into a puddle of shivers and tears -- and Hunt wisely, thoughtfully, almost compassionately abridges the scene until what we're watching is no longer An Exercise in Acting, but a genuine, tangible moment of anguish. It's hard not to feel something for this man -- and for his dog, which refuses to budge from the door, waiting for Elizabeth to come through the door. It's a very real moment in an oft-spurious film.
It's likely that without Duchovny and Driver, Return to Me would be nearly intolerable, a glass of iced tea spiked with a thousand packets of Sweet & Low. But Duchovny, whose first forays into film were apparently chosen by someone who hates him, displays the sort of winsome charm that makes you long for "funny" X-Files episodes. He hasn't been this likable since the show's "Small Potatoes" episode, in which Duchovny, playing a doughy loser who has taken on Mulder's likeness, stares into a mirror and says, repeatedly, "You're a handsome man." He's self-deprecating here, burying his charisma beneath a schoolboy's haircut and a rumpled wardrobe. Bob is like a stereo turned down to one.
As Grace Briggs, the lonely painter-gardener-granddaughter ashamed of the scar she wears on her chest like a scarlet "A," Driver's even more winsome. It's not so unbelievable that Bob could fall for her at first sight -- or that, when informed of the truth about her operation, he could transcend such a creepy predicament and chase Grace halfway around the world to win her back. Perhaps the film's most unbelievable plot point is that Grace, one of those people happiest when they're at their most miserable, can't find a date. See, this is science fiction.
Ironically, though, at its most effective the film is only marginally about the burgeoning relationship between Grace and Bob; they're scenery, something to get you into the theater. Where Hunt has the most fun is with the secondary characters, among them Grace's grandfather (Carroll O'Connor) and his brother-in-law (Robert Loggia), both of whom co-own an Irish-Italian restaurant in a part of Chicago so idyllic, it exists only on some studio's back lot. The two of them bicker and banter with a natural ease; when they sit around a card table, shooting the shit with two other old pals (Eddie Jones and William Bronder), the film feels like outtakes from Tin Men. They argue about the best singers of all time and favorite old ball players. This is where High Fidelity's Rob and his musical moron twins will end up in 40 years, compiling top-five lists around a poker table over pitchers of Old Style. Bob falls in love not just with Grace, but also with her supporting cast. If you're a softie or sucker, it's hard not to.
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