Return to Me
My grandfather, my mother’s father, passed away from cancer in July 2000. He meant a great deal to me in the last nine years of his life, when he was the only grandparent I had left. It was a loss that hit both myself and my mother hard. For me, a movie I leaned on to help through that grief was Edward Norton’s romantic comedy, “Keeping the Faith.” For my mother, it was Bonnie Hunt’s “Return to Me.” Watching the latter again for this review, it’s interesting that we both leaned on films that were romantic comedies, and were also made by actors in their first efforts directing. I think both films reflect where each of us were at that point in our lives, and also reveal some sensibilities in terms of how we view the world. Both are sappy and go where you think they’ll go, but they have big hearts, and deep meaning in terms of how love overcomes obstacles our brains put in the way.
Bonnie Hunt has always been a gifted scene-stealer as an actress, from “Jerry Maguire” and “Jumanji” to her voiceover work with Disney and Pixar. The fact that she’s found herself predominantly in animation over the past decade-plus is a blessing for fans of the medium who get to enjoy her talents, but a curse for those of us who enjoyed watching her in live-action films in the ’90s. “Return to Me” shows how much we lost in her transition to animation, and how much film lost by her directing skills being seemingly relegated to television since this film came out. Working from a script she wrote with Don Lake, there’s not a lot of invention in this love story, but there’s a lot of heart and a lot of potential for David Duchovny and Minnie Driver show their talents beyond what we knew them as in 2000. It’s impossible to watch this film without a big ‘ol smile on your face.
The film stars Duchovny as Bob Rueland, a building contractor whose wife, Elizabeth (Joely Richardson), works with gorillas at the Chicago Zoo. They are out at a fundraiser for the zoo one night when tragedy strikes- a car accident that Elizabeth is killed in. Bob is devastated, but it is beneficial to one person…Grace (Driver), a young woman waiting patiently for a heart transplant. A year later, Bob is still in his funk, but is in good spirits when he gets the go-ahead to make a new enclosure for Sydney, the gorilla Elizabeth worked with. His friend Charlie (David Alan Grier) is trying to get him out of his romantic funk, but nothing really does it. When he gets an anonymous letter from the organ donor foundation, and Grace, it feels like a sign that he can move on, and while the blind date Charlie sets him up on is a disaster, the restaurant they’re at puts him in the vicinity of Grace, who is a server at her grandfather’s Irish Italian restaurant. He is immediately smitten, but he doesn’t know Grace was the recipient of Elizabeth’s heart, and Grace doesn’t know he is the donor’s husband; she’s just worried about the conversation where she tells him about the surgery.
With a predictable story like this, we need something to hook us, and the cast is that hook. Duchovny and Driver make an ideal romantic pairing, but they are surrounded by wonderful actors and characters that help engage us further, from Hunt herself as Grace’s best friend to Carroll O’Connor as Grace’s grandfather to Grier and James Belushi (who plays Hunt’s husband) to Robert Loggia as the cook at the restaurant. They do more than bring these characters to life- they create further emotional spheres around the lead characters that intersect and branch out for the fullest emotional impact possible. That impact is considerable when the main characters find out the truth, and their pain and confusion is palpable. But we know they’ll end up together in the end, because that’s how a story like this always ends. They do, but we’re still moved by it, because Hunt and her actors have done such a good job with the build up. It’s a beautiful ending to a warm and funny story about how fate steps in and leads us where we need to be, even if we don’t realize it at the time.