If you've been needing a good, ol' cathartic cry, pack up those hankies and head to the box office for a cheaper-priced matinee of "Return to Me." A predictable weepie with designs on your heartstrings, the movie is also surprisingly satisfying. I can't explain it; you're just gonna have to trust me on this one.
About as formulaic as they come, "Return to Me" spins on this modern medical dilemma: What happens when a heart recipient unknowingly falls in love with the donor's significant other? David Duchovny plays Bob Rueland, an architect married to a primatologist (Joely Richardson) working for Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo. What his wife wants most of all is a new habitat for her gorilla, which knows sign language. On the night she delivers a plea for funds at the big zoo gala, poor Grace Briggs (Minnie Driver) lies in a hospital bed awaiting a heart. I'm not giving anything away to let you know that Bob's wife never makes it home. Grace's prayers and those of her family are answered, but Bob's life falls apart.
Slowly we watch as Grace begins to get her life back. She is raised by her very Irish grandfather (Carroll O'Connor looking terribly frail) and the crew at the Irish-Italian restaurant he owns. We watch as the sweet, kind-hearted Grace delights in the simple things her heart condition once precluded. Even riding an old-fashioned bicycle thrills her. Meanwhile, Bob is barely coping with his loss. Angry at the world, he's become a regular with all the take-out food delivery folks. Things start to change when he decides to complete his wife's dream, a habitat for her beloved gorilla Sidney.
Then as luck and only Hollywood would have it, Bob's best friend Charlie (the always funny David Alan Grier) talks him into a blind date. Guess where they agree to meet? Yes, Grace's family's restaurant. The date is a hilarious disaster and Bob contrives a way to leave early. Of course, not before he and sympathetic waitress Grace exchange smiles.
As the two continue to be drawn inexplicably toward one another, the inevitable happens — Grace discovers that her heart donor was Bob's wife. She agonizes over telling him and puts it off, even though her best friend and cousin Megan (Bonnie Hunt) tells her to come clean as soon as possible. When she finally does tell Bob, he is stunned. The two stop seeing each other. Grace takes off for Italy to paint; Bob continues with his monument to his dead wife. Will they or won't they get back together?
What makes this very tired, old plot enjoyable is the acting. While I admit that Driver is an acquired taste for many folks, I like her. Attractive in an untraditional way, here she doesn't make a single false move, keeping this very sentimental trifle from ever slipping into melodrama. Even "X-Filer" Duchovny shows a believable deftness with romance. His track record on the big screen has been less than memorable, but here he's not only competent, but credible. He and Driver are especially nice when creating the awkward first steps of romance.
The biggest laughs go to O'Connor and his cronies (Robert Loggia among them) as well as to Hunt and her onscreen hubby, James Belushi, and it's not surprising. While the former are heartwarming, over-the-top ham-meisters, the latter couple get the best lines because Hunt co-wrote and directed the movie.
Though a minor effort for all concerned, "Return to Me" has its own sense of charm and manages to leave you sighing and smiling. Sometimes, that's all you want.
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