Friday April 7, 2000

     "Return to Me" is the kind of big romantic movie Hollywood used to make with such seeming ease. This means you actually can care about the lovers, there's a fine sense of balance between humor and pathos in their story, and far from existing in a vacuum, they are surrounded by a substantial number of endearing types who recall the beloved character actors of the studio era.
     This very contemporary charmer should further consolidate stardom for David Duchovny ("The X-Files") and Minnie Driver ("Good Will Hunting"). It also provides Carroll O'Connor with a worthy return to the big screen after a nearly 25-year absence, and marks a triple triumph for Bonnie Hunt, who not only plays Driver's sister but also directed the film, her first, and co-wrote it (with Don Lake).
     Hunt, a versatile veteran of stage and TV as well as screen, grasps well two fundamentals that are essential to all else that she and her colleagues achieve: Luminous Hollywood escapist fare requires a seamless mix of fantasy and reality, and you've got to have a clever plot twist upon which your love story is to turn.
     Actually, the gimmick is out-and-out shameless, but Hunt follows the Hitchcock dictum of letting the audience know what it is upfront, letting suspense build as to how her key people will be inevitably dealing with it. "Return to Me" goes to show that the most outrageous of coincidences can be milked for all they're worth if you know--and believe in--what you're doing and where you're going.
     Duchovny's Bob Rueland is a highly successful young Chicago builder, a designer-contractor whose happiness is shattered when his beloved wife, the radiant Elizabeth (Joely Richardson), is killed in a car crash. A year after her death, Bob meets Driver's Grace Briggs, when she waits on him, while on a disastrous blind date.
     An aspiring painter, Grace works at her grandfather's cheery neighborhood cafe, O'Reilly's Italian Restaurant, as its name implies, an Irish Italian eatery owned by her grandfather Marty (O'Connor) and his partner (and chef) Angelo, (Robert Loggia), his late wife's brother. Grace is beautiful, but her poise as a waitress belies a shyness and inexperience. She's only recently had a heart transplant; her life had been restricted by heart disease since the age of 14. A deeply religious widower, Marty tends to be overly protective of the granddaughter he nearly lost at an early age, as he had her mother.
     Bob and Grace click swiftly and deeply, but they proceed with understandable caution, for grief is just beginning to lift for Bob while the possibility of love and romance are clearly new for Grace. In so many modern screen romances the lovers seem not only to live in a world of their own but also are concerned exclusively with their emotions. Bob and Grace, in refreshing contrast, get to know each other in a much larger, well-populated context.
     Hunt gets lots of warmth and humor from O'Connor (who's very Pat O'Brien in the best sense) and Loggia and their cronies, played deliciously by Eddie Jones and William Bronder, and from Marianne Muellerielle as the restaurant's good sport longtime waitress, the kind you always wish were waiting on you.
     Grace in turn has a good idea of what wedded bliss can be like, as her sister Megan (Hunt) and brother-in-law Joe (James Belushi, never better), a local cop, deal with a brood of lively kids with affectionate good humor, not letting them get too much in the way of their abiding love for each other. After a solitary year of bereavement that his pal Charlie (David Alan Grier) tries hard to free him from, Bob finds himself responding to the kind embrace of Grace's extended family and friends.
     Hunt and her sterling cast get us so wrapped up in these lovely, loving people that she's well-prepared for the moment of truth that we know is coming. When it occurs she directs it with credibility, sensitivity and an impeccable sense of timing and structure so that she can send us home not merely happy but with a sense of happiness earned.
     "Return to Me" has an appropriately burnished glow, thanks to cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. Its production design is elegant without being overdone and its score is rightly romantic without being treacly. Duchovny and Driver have distinctive good looks and they both combine attractiveness with talent and intelligence. Best of all, they possess that essential quality all screen lovers must have: terrific chemistry.


Return to Me, 2000. PG, for language and thematic elements. An MGM Pictures presentation of a JLT production. Director Bonnie Hunt. Producer Jennie Lew Tugend. Executive producers C.O. Erickson and Melanie Greene. Screenplay by Bonnie Hunt & Don Lake; from a story by Hunt & Lake and Andrew Stern & Samantha Goodman. Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. Editor Garth Craven. Music Nicholas Pike. Costumes Lis Bothwell. Production designer Brent Thomas. Art director Dave Krummel. Set decorator Daniel Clancy. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes. David Duchovny as Bob Rueland. Minnie Driver as Grace Briggs. Carroll O'Connor as Marty O'Reilly. Robert Loggia as Angelo Pardipillo.