Bonnie Hunt’s romantic comedy is a delightful surprise, the
rare example of a potentially awful premise turned into a gem
by keen writing, skillful direction and a likable cast. The
kernel of the plot, to be truthful, sounds absolutely dreadful:
a widower falls in love with a gal who, unbeknowst to either of
them, is the recipient of his late wife’s transplanted heart.
One can only imagine how such a story, if poorly handled,
might have become hopelessly cute and gratingly maudlin. And
in fact the first twenty or so minutes, which set up the
situation, aren’t terribly promising. But after that overly
contrived beginning, Hunt and her cohorts get their footing and
turn the picture into a real treat, a contemporary flick that
actually recaptures a good deal of the spirit and charm of one
of those funny-sad love stories that were fairly common in the
thirties and forties but are awfully thin on the ground

Of course, a tale like this one couldn’t work without a leading
couple that’s both sympathetic and amusing, and Hunt, in her
feature directing debut (she also co-wrote the script with old
“Second City” crony Don Lake), has been fortunate in her choice
of David Duchovny and Minnie Driver. The former puts his
hangdog expression and gift for wry humor to excellent use here;
this may well be the role, after several false starts, that
lets him make the transition from television star to bigscreen
leading man. Driver matches him beautifully: she hasn’t been
so luminous since “Circle of Friends.” Together they make a
pair that one can really care about and root for.

But they don’t have to carry the film alone; Hunt and Lake
have surrounded them with a bevy of rich, lovable supporting
characters, and cast the roles perfectly. Hunt herself and
James Belushi (who’s usually quite insufferable) make such a
fine team as Driver’s best friend and her husband that one
might actually wish for a separate film just about them. David
Alan Grier has some very funny moments as Duchovny’s buddy.
And best of all, a crowd of oldsters has a field day playing
the denizens of the Irish-Italian bar where Duchovny and Driver
(a waitress in the family business) meet. Carroll O’Connor
is warm and fuzzy as Driver’s protective Irish grandad, while
Robert Loggia fusses and jokes colorfully as her Italian
uncle. They’re joined by Eddie Jones, William Bronder, and
Marianne Muellerleile to form a kind of codgers’ assembly that
acts as a continually cantakerous but always supportive Greek
chorus commenting on the romantic goings-on.

There’s one other element in “Return to Me” that makes an
important contribution to the picture’s success–the city of
Chicago, Hunt’s home town, which she shows off with such
obvious affection that it’s never looked better, and rarely
made such a positive impression, on screen. (It certainly
helps that the cinematography is by that old master Laszlo
Kovacs.) The writer-director’s canny touch captures the
atmosphere of the Windy City with such accuracy that the place
becomes virtually another character in the piece.

“Return to Me” is, of course, calculating and manipulative, as
all such romantic comedies are, and there’s little doubt about
how it’s going to end. But if the destination is predictable,
Hunt and her colleagues manage to make the trip so pleasant
that, unless you’re a complete grouch, you’ll be glad to have
signed on for the duration.