Here’s a movie with heart. Literally. Return to Me features what may be the ickiest romantic comedy premise since Harold and Maude – one that takes the sap-drenched Titanic ballad "My Heart Will Go On" at face value. Director and co-writer Bonnie Hunt starred in CBS’s short-lived "Bonnie Hunt Show" in 1995, and she betrays her sitcom roots at every turn in this predictable, sporadically engaging fable.
After architect Bob Rueland (David Duchovny) loses his wife in an automobile accident, he pours his grief into completing her dream project – expanding the gorilla house at the zoo where she worked. He has no interest in rekindling his romantic life until he meets waitress Grace Briggs (Minnie Driver). By a startling coincidence – and this is the really icky part – Grace has recently had a life-saving heart transplant. And the heart in question came from…Bob’s dearly departed wife.
Of course, Bob doesn’t learn this right away. There’s a whirlwind courtship to get through first, one that’s set in a Chicago full to bursting with colorful characters and lovingly photographed by Laszlo Kovacs. (This is the sort of movie the filmmakers proudly refer to as "a valentine to [fill in name of beloved city here].") Grace works at O’Reilly’s Italian Restaurant, co-owned by her Irish grandfather Marty (Carroll O’Connor, serving up thick slabs of blarney) and his Italian brother-in-law Angelo (Robert Loggia, gruff as ever). Her best friend Megan, played by director Hunt, is married to Joe (James Belushi), with whom she exchanges perfectly timed zingers. As a beery, working class Chicago slob, Belushi has finally found the role he was born to play. He’s the funniest part of the movie – and that’s not a good sign.
As a romantic leading man, Duchovny leaves a lot to be desired. Take, for example, the death of Bob’s wife Elizabeth (Joely Richardson), which occurs in the first ten minutes of Return to Me and sets a wobbly tone for the rest of the film. Hunt dissolves from a scene of Bob and Elizabeth dancing to Dean Martin’s title tune directly to a shot of Elizabeth being wheeled into a hospital emergency room with a blood-soaked Bob at her side. This jarring transition would have been more effective if the supposed transcendent love between these two had been established, but instead we’ve only seen a few brief and not especially illuminating interactions between them. When he stares at her with his impenetrable X-Files deadpan in the early scenes, it’s difficult to fathom whether he’s gazing with affection or planning to strangle her.
Duchovny and Driver generate a little more juice together, but the trajectory of their romance is strictly connect-the-dots. Instead of delving deeper into their mutual attraction, the movie gives us a Greek chorus (actually an Irish/Italian chorus, led by O’Connor and Loggia) in the form of the aged denizens of O’Reilly’s. These characters don’t appear to have ongoing lives of their own, unless squabbling over whether Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra is the better crooner constitutes a fulfilling existence. Anyway, does it make sense that this post-retirement bunch is just now getting around to that debate? What have they been talking about all these years – the merits of Truman versus Dewey?
Even with more sharply etched characters, Return to Me would still have to overcome the morbid sentimentality of its central conceit. Unfortunately, that’s a nearly insurmountable task, and the cause isn’t aided by groaners like "When she met you, her heart beat truly for the first time." This kind of thudding literalism may help boost organ donor numbers, but moviegoers susceptible to sugar shock would be wise to schedule a bypass.