Widower Duchovny falls for heart patient who gets his wife's ticker in surprisingly sublime romance
Taken out of context, the plot of "Return To Me" sounds like a really cheesy gimmick for a movie romance.
David Duchovny plays a man whose beautiful, adoring wife (Joley Richardson) dies in a car crash. Minnie Driver is a heart patient who gets the dead woman's ticker in a transplant. After a respectable amount of time has passed for the purposes of good taste, they meet by chance and fall in love.
Your eyes are rolling, right? But surprise, surprise -- the whole magical-innards angle is merely a jumping off point for a sincere and very funny love story that is easily the best romantic dramedy since "Jerry Maguire."
Intelligently co-written and ably directed by Bonnie Hunt -- who played Renee Zellweger's sardonic sister in "Maguire" and co-stars in much the same role here -- "Return To Me" never employs its concept as a crutch. It doesn't have to. Hunt's script (co-written with long-time collaborator Don Lake) has wit, polish and a sublimely humanity that draws affecting performances from a very classy cast.
Completely absent of any Mulder-isms, Duchovny is an ideal forlorn romantic -- charming and clearly devoted to his beautiful wife, a dedicated zoologist teaching sign language to a gorilla at a Chicago zoo.
Dancing together a fund-raiser for a new primate habitat, they make an instantly endearing couple with the unmistakable laughs, whispers and glances of two people deeply in love. In a boy-meets-girl movie, this could scene could be the happy ending.
Then, with the dance music still lingering on the soundtrack, director Hunt gently transitions into powerfully saddening shot of Duchovny running through a hospital alongside a his wife's gurney being sped to emergency surgery, his tuxedo bloodied and his eyes filled with dread. Soon he's at home, despondent and alone, but seemingly holding his heartbreak in check until their dog parks himself at the front door anticipating Richardson's return with tail wagging. Duchovny collapses on the floor in a wrenching breakdown of undiluted anguish. This one take has more pathos than he's showed in seven seasons of "The X-Files" all run together.
Meanwhile, a pale and ailing Driver lies in another hospital acclimating herself to her encroaching mortality and laughing weakly with wise-cracking sibling Hunt when word comes that a heart has been found for her transplant.
These early scenes -- a thoughtfully-balanced mix of sorrow and hope -- hint at Hunt's refreshingly uncontrived methods as a director. This is a movie packed with powerful feelings and surprisingly sharp wit, but unlike a distressing majority of her contemporaries, she knows better than to push the river. It flows by itself and she puts trust in her actors to embody the depth of their characters' emotions.
When the story resumes a year later, Duchovny -- owner of a construction company -- is building the zoo's new habitat in memory of his wife. Sullen and mopey, his stylish home has become a cave littered with the remnants of routine Chinese takeout meals. His dog still waits patiently at the door each day, too -- a constant reminder of his dead wife.
Driver has recovered completely except for having developed a fear of romance since discovering men tend to turn tail and run when she reveals the scar that runs the length of her chest.
Working in her Irish family's Italian restaurant (!), she meets Duchovny when she waits on him during a nightmare of a blind date, forced on him by well-meaning friends. Chemistry and inexplicable recognition ensue.
Hunt's hands-off style makes for a surprisingly subtle and understated love story, while she peppers the film with marvelous touches of incidental comedy, most of it from a stellar supporting cast of Driver's busybody relatives. Carroll O'Connor stands out as her doting granddad, who owns the restaurant and plays nightly games of poker with a handful of jocose retirees, including Robert Loggia, her crabby uncle. Hunt and Jim Belushi play off each other beautifully as facetiously bickering marrieds with a slew of kids.
Of course the gorilla and the dog are destined take to Driver, but such sentimental touches are handled with admirable reserve that speaks to Hunt's faith in the audience. Even the inevitable moment when Driver, then Duchovny, discovers the root of their spell-like connection is approached with remarkable subtlety. Where the vast majority of Hollywood directors would milk such a dramatic moment for every iota of shock and forced grief, Hunt just lets it unfold naturally.
Both deeply moving and cheerfully obliging, "Return to Me" is above the kind of trite heartstring manipulation a story like this invites, and without that burden it blossoms into a sublime audience-pleaser that leaves one misty and smiling ear-to-ear.