Return To Me

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RETURN TO ME  is a smooth sweetheart of a rom-com from 2000 that works its charms almost in spite of itself:  the obvious plotting, cliché supporting characters and double-dose of underlying sentiment (literal heart-tugs in this case) well-packaged in some fun dialogue, sleek direction and winning leads. Really, how can you lose with Minnie Driver? You can’t.

What do you expect most from a relationship? A: Companionship. B: Sex. C: Respect.” I’d have to go with B: Sex. But let’s mark “C” so we get a higher score…”

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After a fundraiser for her zoo project, happily married Chicago architect ‘Bob Rueland’ (David Duchovny) loses his sparkling wife (Joely Richardson) to an accident, while across town unmarried waitress ‘Grace Briggs’ (Driver) lies in another hospital, waiting for a last-chance heart transplant. Okay, we see “it” coming a few minutes in: the question is how to secure and maintain comic tone from tragedy and walk tension between the predestined Bob & Grace and have us laugh with and care about them through minute-116.

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Though awful loss visits us all in real life, as a plot device it has a tendency to sag into weepy TV-movie territory, plus some of the supporting characters here are pillars of the cookie-cut tray: the Lovable Elders (Carroll O’ Connor, Robert Loggia) part of the standard ethnic-mix (Irish, Italian, and here, Polish, replacing generalized Jewish) and the Funny Best Friend (here African-American instead of gay). Some of the former maybe pushed an accent or reference close to too far, but not enough to harm proceedings:  the humor angle all around is gentle and witty without resorting to pratfalls and crudity. The jokes don’t reverb like punch lines, they slide in from a sense of life experience and empathy. You like the people. *

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The tasty dialogue exchanges come thanks to the screenplay shared by Bonnie Hunt with frequent collaborator Don Lake. Along with writing and co-starring, the endearing and multi-tasking Hunt directed as well, her first time out, scoring in all departments. Along with using hometown Chicago settings in the neighborhood she was raised in, she made the $24,000,000 venture a true family-valued affair, with bit parts for her mother, brothers, sisters and nephew, and gave some characters names from her family wings. She then aced the look by having Laszlo Kovacs as cinematographer. She plays ‘Megan’, BGF to Grace, who is terrified her new guy will be repelled by her operation scar. Advice is called for…

MEGAN: “Whatever you do, don’t shave your legs.”  GRACE: “Why?”  MEGAN: “Well, then you definitely won’t let it go too far.”  GRACE: “Megan! It’s a first date!”  MEGAN: “Yeah, well, I married a first date, missy, and you know how it is. You’re out with a guy, you find him attractive, and suddenly everything he says sounds brilliant. Hairy legs are your only link to reality.”  GRACE: “I think you should needle-point that on a pillow.”  MEGAN: “Well, I just might! It kept me a virgin until… y’know, whenever.”

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James Belushi nails Hunt’s husband, rowdy but real; David Alan Grier neatly handles Duchovny’s booster and pal. It was O’Connor’s first big-screen appearance since 1974, and at 75, his last; he died a year later. (Art v. Life, once more: Joely Richardson’s real-life sister, Natasha, would suffer the same fate as Joely’s character 9 years later. Natasha received a donated heart.)

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Backing by seasoned pros, design accouterments and deft writing wouldn’t matter if the leads lacked appeal and chemistry, and fortunately Hunt’s story deals winning hands in her designated duo Duchovny-Driver. He’s low-keyed conveying Bob’s hurt, hesitancy and hope, and Minnie Driver’s smile could light up Illinois. Never yet seen her in anything where she’s less than excellent: she graces Grace with a warmth and honesty that gleams.

It earned good reviews and $36,000,000. With Eddie Jones, William Bronder, Marianne Muellerleile, Dick Cusack (pop of John and Joan), Holly Wartell (the obnoxious blind-date broad in the restaurant).

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* As far as movies and TV go, apparently every immigrant to America came from Italy, Ireland or a ghetto in Eastern Europe. Scandinavia, Germany, Spain, the Balkans, and a few dozen other starting points get the bums rush. At least in this nice little movie, that “safe”, restrictive, tribalized framework—the very opposite of diversity—doesn’t batter you senseless with shtick. Hats off to the funny bone and soul of Bonnie Hunt and the skills of her well-chosen cast.

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