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(2000) (David Duchovny, Minnie Driver) (PG)

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Romantic Comedy: A widower and a heart transplant recipient start dating without either knowing that her new heart originally belonged to his deceased wife.
Bob (DAVID DUCHOVNY) and Elizabeth Rueland (JOELY RICHARDSON) are a happily married couple with rewarding careers and a promising future ahead of them. While Bob's a successful architect, Elizabeth is working hard to create a new gorilla habitat at the Chicago zoo where she works.

Grace Briggs (MINNIE DRIVER), on the other hand, has a nebulous future. Having inherited a genetically weak heart from her late mother, Grace is quite sick and she and her grandfather, Marty O'Reilly (CARROLL O'CONNOR), who runs the local Irish-Italian restaurant with his buddy, Angelo Pardipillo (ROBERT LOGGIA), can only hope and wait for a donor heart to give her a new shot at life.

Fortunately, for her, but quite tragic for Bob, Elizabeth is killed in a car accident, but her heart is transplanted into Grace. While Bob understandably goes into shock and deep depression, Grace gets healthier and after some time, is as good as new.

As such, her extended family and friends, including her best friend, Megan Dayton (BONNIE HUNT), and her blue-collar husband, Joe (JAMES BELUSHI), think she should start dating. With a year having passed by, Bob's friend, Charlie Johnson (DAVID ALAN GRIER), a veterinarian who worked with Elizabeth, thinks the same and tries fixing up Bob on a blind double date.

That event just so happens to take place at O'Reilly's where Grace is serving tables and the sparks immediately fly between her and Bob, although neither knows of their unique connection to each other. As a relationship soon buds and then blossoms between the two, it's only a matter of time before one or the other figures out their special connection and must then deal with such knowledge.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
It's been said that you can't teach an old dog new tricks. While that may be true, if you give the pooch a good bath, further grooming and outfit him with an assortment of cute accessories, he might just come off looking like a new dog, or at least one that's enjoyable to have in one's company, new tricks or not.

Such is the case with "Return to Me," an entertaining romantic comedy that might not offer any new tricks or much that's particularly novel to the genre beyond its initial plot twist, but has been repackaged and gussied up to such a degree that it comes off as fresh and rather enjoyable.

As co-written by actress-turned director Bonnie Hunt ("The Green Mile," "Jerry Maguire") and screenwriter Don Lake (who appears here as a man with a bad hair transplant), the film puts a twist on, but doesn't stray far from, the standard formula of two strangers being thrown together, falling in love, splitting up and finally getting back together again.

If you think I've spoiled things with that synopsis, then you clearly haven't been exposed to more than one such film to detect the obvious formula or you're giving the filmmakers and studios more credit than they deserve for taking risks with more adventurous spins on a tried and true genre. After all, it's not often that the couple in question remains split up at the end or that one of them ends up dying. That sort of plot is relegated to the romantic dramas and tragedies, although this one does start off that way, but fortunately moves on to brighter and far cheerier material.

Playing off the old notion of a person's spirit, if you will, following some transplanted part of their body - such as was the case in 1990's "Heart Condition" with Denzel Washington and Bob Hoskins - the plot element of a character's eventual girlfriend having the heart of his previous wife is the only real twist the film has to offer.

It does, however, strain credibility to a degree. After all, what are the odds of such an accidental meeting and subsequent romance occurring between two such people when neither knows of their unique connection? It's not a debilitating or even that distracting of a problem, but it easily could have been worked around. Since the filmmakers already lay the groundwork of the soul residing in the heart - with the deceased's former ape acquaintance recognizing her spirit in Grace - it would have been easy for more repeated such occurrences to finally bring the two lovelorn strangers together.

Again, it's not a horrible problem, but since we know from the plot setup that the two will get together, such mystical and certainly heartfelt moments (no pun intended) would have been some nice additional touches. If handled properly, any related mawkish qualities also could have been avoided altogether or at least kept to a minimum. While the film doesn't play enough off the fun "near misses" of the two almost meeting (such as occurred in "Sleepless in Seattle"), their awkward first moments together are charming and entertaining.

In fact, it's the great cast, their winning performances and some sharp and often funny dialogue that makes the film so enjoyable. As the leads, David Duchovny ("Playing God," TV's "The X-Files") and Minnie Driver ("An Ideal Husband," "Good Will Hunting") might not initially seem in theory to be the most ideal couple, but the chemistry between them feels right on and the two deliver terrific romantic comedy performances.

While this sort of role is right up Driver's alley, the big surprise is Duchovny playing it light and airy. Although he seemed destined to be forever typecast as the gloomy and near expressionless Agent Fox Mulder, the actor - while clearly not in line for any award nominations for his performance here - does deliver enough emotional range (including the always tough to play emotional breakdown) to break that image of him. While some may complain that he still needs to become more animated, I felt his performance was right on for a film such as this.

Much like films such as "Three Weddings and a Funeral," however, it's the supporting cast and their performances that really make the film. Here, they come in several delightful sets. There's Carroll O'Connor - who's best known as Archie Bunker on "All in the Family" and returns to the big screen for the first time in twenty some years - along with Roberrt Loggia ("Wide Awake," "Big") and their restaurant pals -- Eddie Jones ("The Grifters"), William Bronder ("Cannery Row") and Marianne Muellerleile ("Stardust Memories") -- who all act like a bunch of old matchmaking biddies (and that's meant in a good way) and deliver some of the film's funnier moments.

David Alan Grier finally gets a decent role to play -- after appearing in horrible films such as "3 Strikes" and "McHale's Navy - as Bob's well-intentioned, but off the wall best friend, while Bonnie Hunt plays the analogous role to Driver's character. It's James Belushi ("K-9," "Red Heat"), however, who steals nearly every scene in which he appears as the salty, blue-collar husband to Hunt's character. Playing a comically annoyed/frustrated father and husband, Belushi gets the film's best lines and elicits some of its biggest laughs.

While some may complain that the film's intentionally too cute and lacks any real substance or originality, most everyone else will probably find this charming, entertaining and highly enjoyable picture as much fun as spending an hour or two with an old and familiar canine, regardless of whether it knows any new tricks or not. We certainly did and thus give "Return to Me" a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 7, 2000 / Posted April 7, 2000

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