"Return to Me" marks the directorial debut of comedian Bonnie Hunt, whose career in Hollywood has included a number of memorable roles, from her screen debut as the toothpick dropping waitress in "Rain Man" to her most recent appearance as Tom Hanks' wife in "The Green Mile". Wearing three hats in this outing, as the film's co-writer, director, and supporting actress, Hunt has fashioned a delightful and sentimental romantic comedy that, despite a major narrative stumble in the middle, is worth the effort.
At the start of the film, architect Bob Rueland (David Duchovny of "The X-Files") has the world on a string. With a successful business, a beautiful home, and being married to his one true love Elizabeth (Joely Richardson of "101 Dalmations"), it seems nothing can go wrong. Unfortunately, while driving home from a fundraising event, the Ruelands are involved in a terrible car accident, and Elizabeth is killed, an event that devastates Bob. However, the tragic accident becomes a godsend for waitress Grace Briggs (Minnie Driver, heard recently in "Princess Mononoke"), who has been waiting for a new heart to replace her ailing one.
The story then jumps ahead one year later, and Bob has finally come to grips with the loss of his wife and is ready to re-emerge from his self-imposed social hibernation. At the urging of his friend Charlie (David Alan Grier, heard recently in "Stuart Little"), he agrees to go out on a blind date at a local restaurant. Though the date ends up being a bust (in more ways than one), the hand of Fate has him cross paths with a charming waitress who immediately makes an impression on him-- Grace. A relationship begins, which is gently prodded along with the help of Grace's 'extended family', but there still remains one secret that could put an end to the blossoming romance-- the heart that beats within Grace.
I must admit that the story had me enthralled for the first half of the film, as the intriguing premise spoke to matters of romance, fate, and destiny. In addition, the wealth of supporting performances added a distinct level of warmth to the film, as Grace's 'extended family' seemed to be an animated bunch of people who would probably be a lot of fun to hang around with. Kudos to Carrol O'Connor (Archie Bunker of "All in the Family" fame), Robert Loggia ("Holy Man"), and Jim Belushi ("Wag the Dog") for some memorable turns as some of the more colorful characters in Grace's life. Duchovny and Driver are also great, with the former successfully cast against type (the brooding Agent Mulder), the latter exuding the warmth and insecurity of Grace, and the both of them sharing an enjoyable chemistry in their scenes together. The director herself also does a terrific job playing Grace's friend and confidant Megan, and she frequently steals a number of the scenes. So how could such a great premise backed by some outstanding performances fumble in the final act?
Unfortunately, there is a distinct lack of conflict that becomes increasingly evident as the story unfolds. As with any good romantic-comedy, the drama arises from keeping the two would-be lovers apart-- the higher the stakes, the greater the conflict, and the bigger the pay-off at the end. Unfortunately, "Return to Me" never cultivates this conflict properly.
When the story finally comes to putting the final obstacle in Bob and Grace's path, the result lacks credibility and is brazenly contrived. Grace's fear of having the truth about her heart transplant revealed is poorly handled from the beginning, and other than the fact that she has a six-inch scar on her chest, it is not exactly clear why she should be so concerned. Similarly, Bob's reaction to Grace's revelation about her heart transplant makes little sense in light of how his character has developed in the events leading up to that point. As a result, the final emotional obstacle that Bob and Grace must overcome to find their true love rings hollow, and unfortunately, the film never recovers from it. If you watch the film and ask yourself "what's the big deal?" at the big reveal, then you'll know what I mean.
If you are willing to forgive the illogical dramatic resolution to the story, then "Return to Me" is still an entertaining film, populated with some wonderful performances and charming moments. But if Hunt and her co-scripter Don Lake had done a better job in developing the central plot point, then this film would have just been perfect.