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Return to Me

Posted by martinteller on October 24, 2013

Bob Rueland (David Duchovny) is an architect/builder in a loving marriage to Elizabeth (Joely Richardson), a zookeeper.  After a fundraiser hosted by his wife, she perishes in a car accident.  The recipient of her heart is Grace Briggs (Minnie Driver), an aspiring artist and a waitress in her grandfather’s (Carroll O’Connor) Irish-Italian restaurant.  Grace’s embarrassment over her surgery (and its resulting scar) hampers her dating, but when she meets Bob, her defenses start to fall.  Neither of them is aware of their special anatomical connection.

This movie took me quite by surprise.  It’s disarmingly sweet and remarkably unfussy for a first-time directorial turn by Bonnie Hunt (who also appears in the cast as Grace’s best friend).  A premise that should come off as ridiculously contrived instead feels quite natural… it’s not a plot device, just serendipity.  Although the transplanted heart does seem to have magical properties, the film never tries to make the point that Bob and Grace love each other because of it.  Perhaps fate stepped in to bring such closely tied people together, but the romance belongs entirely to the two protagonists themselves.  There’s also a refreshing lack of hand-wringing over Elizabeth’s death (which is handled tastefully offscreen with fine use of time jump and montage)… the grief is established in one or two short scenes, not hammered into the viewer or forming an oppressive cloud over Duchovny’s character.

This is not to say I have no gripes.  There are beats and turns that are far too predictable, and the third act conflict feels overblown, but these things are accepted as part of the genre conventions (you can’t have a romcom without an obstacle).  However, I could have done with one less scene of Jim Belushi (playing Hunt’s husband) dealing with screaming kids, just because screaming kids grate on my nerves.  And the “bad” dates arranged for Bob & Grace are unnecessarily easy targets… the romance between them would actually ring stronger if contrasted with viable alternatives rather than clearly unappealing ones.

But these are minor nitpicks.  Duchovny and Driver have an appealing, believable chemistry.  And really, the entire cast (except for the aforementioned bad dates) is enjoyable.  The grizzled banter between O’Connor and his pals (Robert Loggia, Eddie Jones, William Bronder) is a hoot, and a fine example of the naturalistic dialogue, often overlapping in the grand tradition of Howard Hawks.  The friendship between Duchovny and David Alan Grier is fun and has a touching kindness to it.  Even Belushi is palatable here, reigned in to a lesser role where his comedy can poke through rather than overwhelm the proceedings.  And as a native Chicagoan, I always enjoy seeing familiar landmarks like the Lincoln Park Zoo and the Grant Park fountain.  And Hunt’s implementation of montage feels emotionally motivated as opposed to merely cinematic shortcuts, especially in a sequence that turns out to be a surprising flash-forward.

In all, the movie has an elegant simplicity to it.  It seems to harken back to an age of simpler romance, paid homage to in the oldies soundtrack.  An age where we could simply delight in watching likable people doing charming things and finding happiness.  Very easy to watch, and very sweet.  Rating: Very Good (87)

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