Return to Me
directed by Bonnie Hunt
(MGM, 2000)

I wanted to see Gladiator. Ellie wanted to see Where the Heart Is. Desperate to avoid what I perceived as a "chick" movie, I countered with Return to Me. After all, I'm an X-Files fan, and I was curious to see if David Duchovny could successfully break out of his Fox Mulder role. (If not, then I figured there'd be aliens in the movie somewhere, which was fine by me.)

As we settled in to watch, Ellie smirked and said, "You do realize this is a chick movie, too?" It was OK, I firmly told myself. Duchovny wouldn't let me down.

He didn't. And, chick flick or not, Return to Me is a fine piece of film-making. Yes, it's a romantic comedy, and that alone might convince some guys down the hall to see Screwed or Road Trip instead. They'll be making a mistake. (And I don't think I need to see Screwed or Road Trip to say this with some degree of confidence.) The movie has a slow build-up, as we meet architect Bob Rueland (Duchovny) and his wife, Elizabeth (Joely Richardson), who is a dedicated animal behaviorist at the Lincoln Park Zoo. She's a very likeable character -- which is a shame, because you know from the start that she's not going to live very long in the film.

There's a car wreck, tastefully off-screen. Her death is extremely well-handled, and Duchovny wears his immediate shock and later anguish quite convincingly. Even more touching, however, are the reactions of Mel, the Ruelands' dog, who waits for Elizabeth's return by the front door for a full year after her death, and Sidney, the great ape at the zoo who loses his only real human link.

Grace Briggs (Minnie Driver), near death and needing a transplant, gets Elizabeth's heart. In one incredible movie segment, director Bonnie Hunt beautifully mingles scenes of Grace's surgery, her gathered friends and family waiting to see if it succeeds, Bob's pain in the immediate aftermath of Elizabeth's death, and Bob and Elizabeth's final dance together. If it doesn't move you at least a little, then perhaps you, too, need a new heart.

Inevitably, Bob and Grace meet. A year has passed, and of course neither knows their connection. Bob's still heartbroken, working to fulfill Elizabeth's final dream, and Grace is still trying to deal with the notion that someone else died so that she could live. You can see the ending coming a mile away: they fall in love, revelations are made which divide them, and you pretty much know where things will go from there. No surprises.

Where Hunt, who co-wrote the screenplay with Don Lake, really scores is the back-story. For instance, the quartet of senior citizens who run O'Reilly's Italian Restaurant are a reoccurring delight. Led by Carroll O'Connor as Marty O'Reilly, Grace's grandfather, the team of restauranteurs, bowling partners, poker chums and incurable meddlers also includes Robert Loggia, Eddie Jones and William Bronder -- and they steal every scene they're in. Providing excellent support are Jim Belushi and Bonnie Hunt as Joe and Megan Dayton, Grace's baby-factory friends, and David Alan Grier as Charlie Johnson, Bob's steadfast link to Elizabeth. There are some great camera moments, like the first-date view of Chicago's skyline, and a post-revelation shot of Grace alone in her garden with her shiny new red bicycle.

OK, so there are no perplexing or unexpected plot twists here. Then again, there weren't any in When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle, either. But it's a good movie nonetheless, tweaking the right emotional buttons at the right times and bolstering a fairly predictable story with well-crafted story-telling, good performances all around and an excellent supporting cast.

Don't be afraid to see this one, guys, even if there are no aliens involved. (If nothing else, it should be a great way to impress a date.) And, all right, I'll admit it -- even curmudgeons like myself like to be reminded once in a while that sometimes romances, even fictional ones on the big screen, work out the way they're supposed to.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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