Written and directed by actress Bonnie Hunt, Return To Me is a film that my mother adores for two reasons. Firstly because it stars David Duchovny and he is one of her favourite actors. She has watched everything he’s starred in from The Red Shoe Diaries to The X-Files (of course) and Californication. Secondly, and most importantly, she loves the film because it is a story of love, hope and new beginnings. Like my mother, I am a hopeless romantic. I can be cynical, this is true. I think we all can. But when you watch a film like Return to Me, you can’t help but feel that people’s hearts really do call out to each other. That we are meant to be with certain people. That no matter the circumstances, their lives and our lives, are inexplicably intertwined.
Return to Me was the movie that really sold me on David Duchovny. I first watched the film when I was sixteen, and my mom and I have tried to watch it at least annually ever since. David is great as Fox Mulder in The X-Files, and that is his career defining role, but I would like to submit Return to Me as proof that David can play the romantic lead in a romantic comedy with as much ability as he can play an FBI agent who wants to believe or a disillusioned writer in California.
Hurry Back, Hurry Back
Bob (played by David Duchovny) and Elizabeth (played by Joely Richardson) are a very happily married couple. Bob is an architect and Elizabeth is a zoologist who specialises in primates, namely gorillas.
Grace (played by Minnie Driver) is a woman who has suffered from genetic heart problems since she was fourteen, and she is waiting for a heart transplant so that she may be given a second chance at life.
On the way back from a charity ball to raise money for a larger habitat at the Chicago zoo for Sydney, a gorilla that Elizabeth has studied and cared for for over a decade, Bob and Elizabeth are in a serious car accident, and Elizabeth tragically dies due to her injuries.
Grace then receives Elizabeth’s heart. Her entire family are incredibly worried that the procedure will not be successful, but they are hopeful that Grace will finally be able to live a somewhat normal life. This event causes both terrible heartache and happiness: Bob is distraught that the love of his life since he was a young teenager has been taken from him, Grace’s family are overcome with joy that Grace may not be taken from them after all.
The operation is successful, and a year later Grace is living a semi normal life, although she feels sensitive about the large scar she has from her heart transplant. She also feels somewhat lonely and depressed, but she does not complain because she feels that she should be grateful for having been given a second chance at life.
She goes to the zoo with her friend Megan (played by Bonnie Hunt), the mother of five children under ten, and connects with Sydney, who presses his hands against the glass of his habitat in the same way he had done with Elizabeth.
Bob wants to fulfil Elizabeth’s dream of expanding Sydney’s habitat, but he constantly meets corporate opposition and ends up shouting at the men impeding progress on the building of said habitat. His friend Charlie (played by David Alan Grier), who is a vet and also worked with Elizabeth, has been trying to persuade Bob to go out on dates with women Charlie knows. After much reluctance, Bob decides to go out with Charlie, who is somewhat of a womaniser, to ‘O’ Reilly’s’ an Italian restaurant. The restaurant is owned by Grace’s grandpa, Marty (played by Carol O’ Connor).
Both Bob and Grace are on terrible blind dates. The cook at ‘O’ Reilly’s’, who is also her Grandpa’s long time friend, Angelo (played by Robert Loggia) has set her up, between her waiting tables that night, with a man who has had a very obvious hair transplant. Meanwhile, Charlie has set Bob up with a difficult loud mouth who keeps shoving him every time she laughs.
Grace manages to escape her terrible “date” and serves their table, but the loud mouth is incredibly rude to her. However, Grace and Bob make an instant connection, much to the loud mouth’s irritation. Bob fakes a call from work and leaves the restaurant, but not before Grace gives him some food meant for another customer. That evening Bob reads a letter that Grace has anonymously written to him thanking him for his wife’s heart, which leaves Bob saddened but deeply moved:
Dear Donor Family
I hope this letter may be of some comfort, although words cannot express the depth of my gratitude. I am eternally grateful for the thoughtfulness you and your loved ones have given me in your moment of deepest sorrow. I awake each day feeling the gentle rhythm of the heart that beats inside me. It is because of you I am alive today. You will always be in my thoughts and prayers. I thank you and God bless.
Megan invites Grace over for dinner, and is furious when she finds out that her husband, Joe (played by James Belushi) has invited an ex-priest over so that he can set him up with Grace. Joe thinks this is a good idea because like Grace, the ex-priest has never dated. The ex-priest pitches up still wearing his priest collar because he isn’t used to being without it yet.
Grace calls Bob’s work to let him know that he left his cellphone at the restaurant, and so he returns, quite happily, to pick it up. He meets Grace’s grandpa and friends, who all welcome him enthusiastically as they are also widowers. Grace is embarrassed when she comes downstairs and realises Bob is there as she is wearing her pyjamas and a shower cap. Despite some initial awkwardness, Bob asks her out on a date and she happily accepts.
Their first date is very successful, but Grace cannot bring herself to tell Bob about her heart condition and heart transplant. They begin to fall deeply in love, going bowling with her family and friends, and dancing in the garden to Sinatra. Both of their lives improve because of their love for one another, but Bob still doesn’t know about Grace’s heart transplant.
When she finally resolves to tell him, she finds the letter she wrote and realises that she has Elizabeth’s heart, as Elizabeth died the day that Grace underwent the transplant. She is distraught and decides to give Bob up. She decides to go to Italy, as her grandpa bought her a ticket so she could study street painting there and live the life of an European artist. When Bob shows up with a new bicycle for her, Grace finally tells Bob everything, but he does not react well and all seems over between them, and Grace goes to Italy.
Bob eventually tells Charlie everything that has come to pass, and then goes to ‘O’ Reilly’s’, where he tells Grace’s family and friends that he misses Elizabeth and will always miss her, but that he aches for Grace. Marty tells him that he and Grace are meant to be together, “When she met you, her heart beat truly for the first time. Perhaps it was meant to be with you always.”
Bob goes to Italy and he and Grace are reunited, with Bob declaring his love for her.
Sydney finally gets his beautiful expanded habitat, and Elizabeth’s dream is realised.
The film ends with Sophie, a long time waitress at the restaurant, and Wally, a friend of Marty’s, wedding reception, which is, of course, held at ‘O’Reilly’s’.
Return to me, please come back bella mia
In my opinion, if you love romantic comedies, and lets face it many people do, then this film is essential viewing. And I’m not talking about those roll your eyes, why would she want to be with this schmuck romantic comedies. I’m talking about romantic comedies that manage to perfectly combine real human connection, humour and drama, as Return to Me does so deftly. What I like about this film is that it really tries to deal with Bob’s terrible heartache over losing Elizabeth. He doesn’t magically get over her. Even when he begins to care for Grace, there’s a distinct impression that he doesn’t really know how to proceed, and neither does Grace, but they sense that this is the real thing, and so they struggle through together, coming to love each truly.
David’s performance is wonderfully easy. You really believe that he is Bob. He’s not like George Clooney, who was apparently initially offered the part of Bob, who never seems quite believable in this kind of role because of his suaveness and smooth good looks. David is kind of goofy and very funny, and so he endears himself to you. The scene in which he sobs over Elizabeth’s death is incredibly heart wrenching. He looks as if his heart is breaking, as if like Grace, he will have a scar over it for the rest of his life.
He also doesn’t come across as smug or self assured like many actors tend to in romantic comedies. Nor is he trying too hard to get the audience to like him. We like him because he conveys the awkwardness and fear that people experience when trying to find love again without succumbing to terrible guilt over, what they see, as abandoning their dead spouse. Forgetting about them, even though they were with them for so long. Neither the film nor David’s performance says “hey! This is easy! Just find another wife and it’ll all be fine!” Even though you know that there’ll be a happy ending, you also know that it isn’t going to be one that just magically falls into place. The characters all look shell shocked when they realise that Grace has received Bob’s dead wife’s heart (as Megan blurts out to Joe when he thinks Bob’s been two timing Grace).
Minnie Driver and David Duchovny are also really good together. They look completely at ease with one another, and the way they show their slowly blossoming love for one another is wonderful. I especially love the scene when Grace is tripping over her words when Bob returns to the restaurant. The scene could be annoying, but Minnie makes it so funny, and David’s reaction, a big smile, is perfect. They also have good comedic timing when they’re together, and play off one another so that none of those scenes fizzle.
The bottom line is this: if you’re feeling low about life, as if things are just not going anywhere or as if they’ve veered off in the wrong direction, then watch this movie. I think it’ll really make you feel as if things can improve. And I know it’s a movie, and I know we all know that hearts will be mended figuratively and literally, but isn’t that why we watch movies like Return to Me? Because we want hearts to be mended, instead of broken?