A comedy straight from the heart.
The first thought that occurred to me after watching Return to Me, the directorial debut of Bonnie Hunt, was "They really do make them like they used to." This film could have been made in the 1950s with Cary Grant in the lead. But I found it sincere and heartwarming, sweet and likable, despite a formulaic storyline. This film is one part romantic comedy, one part drama, and one part slice-of-life, and manages to keep the film as a whole on track and avoids the pitfalls. A superb cast, characters with depth, and a charming and well written story gets my recommendation. For those who can't stand an emotional film with a bit of saccharine, they might watch something else. MGM gets a rare win from me with an anamorphic transfer, nice sound, and a pleasing commentary track.
Facts of the Case
The film opens with two parallel stories set in Chicago. Bob and Liz Rueland (David Duchovny and Joely Richardson) are a happily married couple; he designs skyscrapers and she is a specialist in gorillas working at the Lincoln Park Zoo. In the other, Grace (Minnie Driver—Good Will Hunting), is near death in a hospital bed awaiting a heart transplant while her sister Megan (Bonnie Hunt) keeps her spirits up . A tragic irony and the twist that drives the film follows: Grace's life is saved when Liz is killed in an accident. Hope and hopelessness are transposed as Bob is crushed and Grace gets a new lease on life.
One year later, Grace is fully recovered and is working as a waitress at her grandfather's multi-ethnic establishment, "O'Reilly's Italian Restaurant." Bob, finally trying to move on, goes there on a blind date, but his horrid date is completely overshadowed by Grace. There is obviously an immediate attraction; make of the metaphysical implications what you will. Of course, neither realizes that Grace is the one who received Liz's heart, but the formula demands they find out, with some complications arising from that realization. Of course during the whole film you know these two are destined to be together, just as you did in every Cary Grant romantic comedy.
Bonnie Hunt is a stand-up comedienne and actress who has mostly done supporting work, such as in Jerry Maguire. She did have a short-lived television series with her name on the title, which I enjoyed but others apparently did not. She co-wrote and directed Return to Me; playing a supporting character as well, and did a fine job at all three. There was a lot to like about the story, especially the depth of the characters. There are a fair number of supporting players, but each of them get something, and none are just filler.
David Duchovny has perhaps forever escaped being typecast as Agent Muldur from The X-Files. He proved he has the chops to play a romantic lead. Minnie Driver needed no justification; she is perfect for roles such as this. But what really makes the romance is the chemistry between these two. You can easily believe them as a couple. Both are able to get the laughs without working for them, and to get serious as well. I really felt for these two and the troubles they had to go through, and happy for them when they're happy. Manipulated by the formula? Maybe a little. But it wouldn't work if these two didn't make it real.
The outstanding supporting cast gets most of the laughs and much of the slice-of-life qualifiers in the film. Carroll O'Connor and Robert Loggia make up the two ethnic parts of O'Reilly's Italian restaurant. O'Connor is Grace's too-Irish grandfather and Loggia the Italian chef, and along with the other folks who work there, make up Grace's family and are always on the lookout for her to be happy. Bonnie Hunt plays her sister Megan, a housewife with James Belushi for a husband and several kids who act like real kids. The couple argues, the kids say the wrong things and get into stuff, and the whole house seems like a real family lives there. David Alan Grier plays a veterinarian who was close to Liz and Bob, and makes up much of his support group after her death. These characters all come together and the banter is often priceless, such as the guys arguing over which dead singer is best. Old classic music from the '50s plays a large part in the film, as Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra are the staple music the old guys listen to. That gives the whole film a timeless feel that Hunt was shooting for.
That timeless quality really appealed to me. This is a romantic comedy in the vein of the older films of the '40s and '50s, and gave something for adults to enjoy. I can only imagine some studio exec saying "Well, why don't we put some naked teenagers in here instead?" Fortunately Hunt was able to make the film she wanted to make, got the right people together, and made a memorable gem. Sure, the end was never in doubt, and emotions are being toyed with somewhat, but when it is done right I don't mind.
MGM hasn't exactly been the most-loved studio lately. They've earned a reputation for slapping together non-anamorphic transfers and making cheap discs without extras on their catalog titles. But at least on this release of a newer film, they did things much better. This is a very nice 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. As you would expect from a new film, there are no nicks, scratches, or dirt from the source print to become permanent defects on the disc. Grain is minimal, and the level of detail is high. Colors are well saturated, blacks are deep, and all told a fine transfer. There is some minimal edge enhancement but nothing I found distracting or annoying.
The sound is Dolby Digital 5.1, but falls into the "comedy-drama" syndrome where the rear channels are only used for ambient street noise and the musical score. The score was very nice by the way; combining old standards from the Rat Pack with some sweeping emotional background stuff. Just like the old films. Dialogue is clearly understood and there are no real defects.
The extra content is a bit light, consisting of a commentary track with Bonnie Hunt and co-writer Don Lake, one music video, and one deleted scene. I thought the commentary track was very nice, and Hunt showed her mastery of deadpan humor as she made jokes that you had to wonder if they really were jokes at the time. When she says early on that she and David Alan Grier had to share a room to save money, I thought it odd but went along. By the time the film was nearing the end more and more people were sharing that room and it became apparent she was toying with us. It's funnier than it sounds. The only complaint about the track is some scenes filled with silence since it is obvious they are moved and just watching the film. Best to get that out of the way so you can actually talk or the track bogs down, but this is Hunt's first director's track and I'll cut her some slack.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I won't be quite so kind to MGM, since they patently lied to her about what they could or could not do on the DVD. During the track she talked of other outtakes and deleted scenes, more music videos and other extras she wanted on the disc. MGM told her the DVD couldn't hold any more than a two-hour film, one commentary track and a couple short extras. This is from the company that fills their James Bond discs to the brim with documentaries, commentaries, and more. Tell New Line they can't put more on a disc than one track, one scene and one music video on their discs and still keep good picture and sound quality. I'm happy with the extras that are there, but clearly MGM didn't want to go the extra mile with materials that already existed. My only other complaint with the disc is the lack of English captions for the hearing impaired. French and Spanish subtitles (despite a Spanish language track) are included, so why English captions weren't used instead was a poor choice.
I could nitpick a bit at the film, but it hardly seems necessary. I thought O'Connor was a bit too Irish and overplayed the accent a bit. Big deal. He still gave a powerful performance, and I really liked all the other supporting cast, including one of my favorite underrated actors, James Belushi. He plays the blue-collar guy with a heart of gold better than almost anyone.
Some may find this film too sweet and maybe even quaint, or the formula too well followed, and those viewers would be too cynical for the film. I'm generally pretty cynical, and I'm fairly immune to chick flicks, but I liked it. I would call this more of a date movie than a chick flick, and its charm won me over. At a straight PG rating, only some bad language done for humor is of concern for parents.
If there is a romantic bone in your body left, then you should enjoy Return to Me. Buy it or rent it; either way I don't think you'll be disappointed.
Bonnie Hunt and all the stars and makers of the film get my applause for making a film that jumps out of the old classics and makes it new. MGM gets a nod for giving us the anamorphic transfer and commentary track, but they really could have done more, and didn't have to lie to the fledgling director about what would fit on a DVD.
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