Look, I get as cranky as the next guy when it comes to those four-hankie jobs that want you to laugh through your tears. But once in a while a date-night flick comes along that wears down your defenses. Name your shame. Return to Me is a sweetly comic romance that may not be in the first tier with An Affair to Remember or Moonstruck, but it's not down in the muck, either, with Hanging Up or the dreaded What Dreams May Come. This despite a plot that concerns a man who falls in love with a woman whose transplanted heart belonged to - get this - his dead wife.
Stick with me. A top cast, guided by actress Bonnie Hunt in her directing debut, mixes comedy and corn with surprising savvy. David Duchovny, dropping his dour X-Files persona, is remarkably light on his feet as Bob Rueland, an architectural engineer. Without being disgusting about it, Bob and his lovely zoologist wife, Elizabeth (Joely Richardson), live one of those perfect lives in Chicago. She cares for gorillas - especially Sydney, her favorite - and he makes plans to build the animals a new habitat in the Lincoln Park Zoo. All together now: Ahhh. But when Elizabeth dies in a car accident, Bob is bereft. Here's where the movie could have slid into a sappy bog. Instead, Hunt - who co-wrote the script with Don Lake - goes easy. Bob doesn't indulge in any Oscar-begging breakdowns. At home, we see Elizabeth's dog waiting for her by the door. Bob can't get the mutt into the kitchen to eat, so he sits by the door with him. Point made, nicely.
It's not until a year later that Bob meets Grace Briggs (Minnie Driver), a waitress at a restaurant run by her Irish grandfather, Marty O'Reilly (Carroll O'Connor), and his Italian brother-in-law, Angelo Pardipillo (Robert Loggia). Bob doesn't know that Grace is carrying Elizabeth's heart or that Grace, whose parents are deceased, would have died if she had not found a donor.
Get out your handkerchiefs. Grace's illness had kept her housebound; now she can travel and pursue her dream of studying art in Paris. Bob responds to her humor and her family - O'Connor and Loggia have a ball hamming it up as ethnic sparring partners. And Hunt gets in some tart lines as Megan, a married friend who wants to protect Grace from the wrong man. Still, this love story belongs to its stars. Driver, who can be grating in simpy roles (An Ideal Husband), is scrappy and appealing here. And Duchovny should have a whole new career as a romantic leading man - he never goes for a laugh at the expense of character. There's something to be said for a weepie that works you over without making you feel like a jerk.