`Return to Me' escapes being entirely too cute

Review: Sure hand of director Bonnie Hunt, old pros save film from triteness.

April 07, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Old-fashioned in the best sense of the word, "Return to Me" is a little heart-warmer of a film that keeps threatening to turn into a trite Hallmark valentine. But some old acting pros in supporting roles, and the sure hand of first-time director Bonnie Hunt, keep it from crossing over into so-cute-I-can't-stand-it territory.

Bob Rueland (David Duchovny) is an architect whose latest project is designing a new gorilla house for the zoo where his wife, Elizabeth (Joely Richardson), works. When Elizabeth is killed in a car accident, a grieving Bob throws himself even harder into the work, determined to design a fitting memorial to the memory of the only woman he'll ever love.

Meanwhile, across town, Grace Briggs (Minnie Driver) is languishing in a hospital room, slowly dying of heart disease. But just when things look worst, a donor heart shows up, and soon Grace is as healthy and apple-cheeked as ever.

Of course, the heart Grace gets is Elizabeth's. And, of course, Bob and Grace meet (while he's on the blind date from hell and she's his waitress). And, of course, they fall in love. And, of course, the issue here is: When will these two lovers realize this amazing coincidence, and will their relationship survive?

Duchovny, whose previous non-"X-Files" big-screen role was the horrible "Playing God," fares much better here. His grief at his wife's death never feels forced; neither does the tentativeness with which he approaches this new relationship.

More problematic is Driver, who never seems to get inside Grace's skin. Maybe she's too vibrant an actress to play a woman so emotionally conflicted.

As Grace's over-protective Irish grandfather, Marty, Carroll O'Connor maintains a glint in his eye that one might not expect from Archie Bunker -- which makes the character even more delightful. Aiding and abetting O'Connor are a group of screen veterans, including Robert Loggia and Eddie Jones, who together take on the roles of Grace's guardian angels.

But the real strength of "Return to Me" is Hunt, who knows just when to retreat from the film's overriding sweetness and inject a cynical moment or two, mostly involving her and James Belushi as a decidedly less starry-eyed, though still very much in love, couple. Her sure hand shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's followed her career, where she's frequently been the best thing about mediocre movies.

Here, she manages to raise an entire film to her level.

`Return to Me'

Starring David Duchovny and Minnie Driver

Directed by Bonnie Hunt

Released by MGM/UA

Rated PG (Language and thematic elements)

Running time 115 minutes

Sun score **1/2

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