You can hear lots of hearty laughter from the kitchen of O'Reilly's, the Irish-Italian restaurant in ''Return to Me,'' a faltering new romantic comedy directed by Bonnie Hunt. It's about a heart, and an irreplaceable, deep-seated love that can be passed from one person to another. At least, this love can be passed from a heart's donor, Elizabeth, to its recipient, Grace Minnie Driver. After Elizabeth dies in a car accident, the sickly Grace gets her heart, and a wondrous romance begins to bloom between Grace and Elizabeth's husband, Bob David Duchovny.
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Probably few actresses convey bemused decency as quickly, or as well, as the actress and comic performer Bonnie Hunt. In her directorial debut, her willingness to buff off all the sharp edges of this story of star-crossed spirits makes a picture that's very easygoing -- far too easygoing. It's as if she were out to make the film child-proof.
The opening credit sequence tries to create a lost-in-love fabric, with a generic overhead shot of Chicago's concrete canyons and with Dean Martin's confidently slumming his way through the song ''Return to Me,'' showing only that this once-underphotographed city is now dangerously close to being overexposed. Weightless and polite when it means to be magical and gentle, ''Return to Me'' is a piece of fruit gone soft from being off the vine too long.
It's top-loaded with Dean Martin songs, including a soapy version of the title tune that sounds as if it's emanating from the eight-track of your father's Oldsmobile. The key element in the success, I think, is the illusion that Bob and Grace are truly in love.
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Duchovny and Driver who has a gift for vulnerability have an unforced chemistry that feels right. It is crucial in a story of this sort that we want the couple to be together--that we care about them. Otherwise we are simply looking at the puppet strings. I did like them, and felt protective toward them and apprehensive as their inevitable problems approached. The setting of the film is also old-fashioned, and a little too picturesque for my taste.
Many of the scenes play in O'Reilly's Italian restaurant actually the Twin Anchors , where the Irish and Italian branches of Grace's family offer such contradictory menu choices as chicken vesuvio and corned beef and cabbage. What is strangest about the restaurant is not the menu but the hours: O'Reilly's seems to close early every night, so that the old cronies who run the place can sit around the back table, playing poker and holding desultory debates on the relative merits of Frank Sinatra , Dean Martin and Vic Damone.
The guys are all busybodies, peering through a back window into the rear garden where many of the key scenes take place, and playing matchmakers for all they're worth. A little trimming of their scenes wouldn't have hurt.
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There is, however, a nice unforced feel to the home life of Grace's best friends, Megan and Joe Dayton, played by Hunt and James Belushi with a relaxed domesticity that makes their characters feel real and not just helpers designed to speed a scene or two. The film's emphasis is on friends and family, on a much-loved neighborhood woman who moves in a circle of people who want her to be happy. Watching the film, I became aware that it lacked the gimmicks of many recent romances.
It seems that in an effort to avoid accusations of pandering to the saccharine sappiness inherent in many "date" films, Hunt may have retreated too far. Several would-be poignant scenes are either minimized and glossed over, or washed out and drab.
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This creates an uneven flow since much of the rest of the movie unabashedly grabs for heartstrings. You end up really caring about Bob and Grace and their future. You grieve for Elizabeth. You laugh. You cry. All told, Return to Me makes much more sense as a TV movie than it does as a big screen spectacle. Besides, all the needless profanity may well get whittled down when this film debuts on network television. Comedy Romance. Bonnie Hunt.
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