I wish “O’Reilly’s Italian Restaurant” were in my neighborhood. I’d like to stop by for a pint on a Saturday night and eavesdrop on Carroll O’Connor and Robert Loggia arguing the relative merits of Italian and Irish culture, especially which produced the best singers. I’d like to ask Minnie Driver whether I’d be better off with the chicken vesuvio or the shepherd’s pie. And if I had a nice friend like David Duchovny whose wife had died tragically a year ago in a car accident, I’d like to see him find happiness again with someone as sweet and winsome as Driver; particularly if it turned out that they shared a mysterious connection like the one that is at, so to speak, the heart of the story in Return to Me.
There is, alas, no real O’Reilly’s Italian Restaurant, either in my neighborhood, or in Chicago where Return to Me is set; but I am glad that it exists in the fairy-tale world of this film; and I’m glad for the time I spent there in the company of O’Connor and Loggia while watching the film. Yes, and even for the time spent with Bonnie Hunt and James Belushi, the big lug, whom for all his gracelessness and beer belly you can’t help liking.
Such are the pleasures of Return to Me. To all this, moreover, we can add a refreshingly appealing use of religious faith and culture. The pious, folksy Irish and Italian Catholicism of Carroll O’Connor and his cronies isn’t there for the sake of either mockery or preachiness, but is simply taken for granted, just as it might have been in a film of this sort from fifty years ago, when they still made them. The story also takes for granted (indeed, depends upon) the fact that the hero and the heroine manage to fall in love and grow together without taking their clothes off.
To some people, this might already seem like a fairy tale; but I had a very different reason for speaking of the “fairy-tale world” of Return to Me. What makes this a modern fairy tale is not the charming settings like O’Reilly’s, nor the charming characters played by Driver and Belushi, but the poetic device that links Duchovny’s and Driver’s characters: Unbeknownst to Bob, Grace is the survivor of a heart-transplant operation; and unbeknownst to Grace, the heart that now beats in her chest came from the broken body of Bob’s deceased wife Elizabeth (The Patriot’s Joely Richardson): a remarkable fact that could be more directly expressed in six monosyllabic words; and, in a funny moment, is.
This is a fairy-tale device, not merely because of the astronomical odds against it, but because of the significance it takes on in this story: that Grace’s heart and Bob’s were united literally before they met; that her heart belongs to him twice over, and he to it. For all the well-meaning attempts of their friends to fix them up with blind dates from hell, they are destined for one another.
Another film might have used a transplanted heart as a metaphor for destiny or a second chance at love, but the heart in this film is presented quite unapologetically as a special something that passes from Elizabeth to Grace. On the night Elizabeth dies and Grace is saved, Bob is at his house on the floor sobbing in a fetal position; but the moment his wife’s heart begins to beat in another woman’s chest, he opens his eyes, as if he somehow knows something has happened. The first time Bob and Grace see one another, something passes between them less like “love at first sight” than plain recognition (even animals who knew Elizabeth seem to recognize Grace). The only potential sticking point in their budding relationship is how they will each react when they discover their common link.
Does all this seem contrived or sentimental? Well, what if it is? Is there something inherently wrong with contrivance or sentiment? A story is weakened by contrivance or sentimentality if they distract from or alter the natural flow of the story; if they’re a cop-out. In Return to Me, the contrivance is the premise of the story, and the sentiment is the point. No one criticizes a fairy tale for being contrived or sentimental; those categories are irrelevant. The only relevant question is whether it works on its own terms, whether it’s enjoyable. If this movie turns you off, you’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch.
Clearly, in a movie of this sort a great deal depends upon the
likability and chemistry of the actors; and David Duchovny and
Minnie Driver deliver as two survivors who help heal one
another’s wounds. Driver is wary but delightful and appealing as
the heart transplant survivor who doesn’t want to be treated like
a china doll, and Duchovny, while not entirely abandoning the
trademark deadpan humor of his
The film is punctuated with cleverly observed moments and nice little touches. Grace has a couple of great deathbed-humor lines as the dying patient waiting for a new heart; and I liked the bit where Bob gets his truck back from a parking valet. Bonnie Hunt and James Belushi provide a hilarious but affectionate glimpse of family life that is full of foibles and charms.
Well, I have now told you just about every significant point in the story of Return to Me. Have I spoiled anything? I think not. Ten minutes into the film you would probably know about as much about the story as you do now. You don’t watch a movie like this for plot twists, but for characters you can enjoy watching and will care about, places you will enjoy spending time, and a charming, hopeful look at love amid the vagaries of life.
P.S. Return to Me’s positive Catholic milieu aside, some Catholics have taken legitimate exception to that film’s implicit acceptance of heart transplantation, which remains an open issue in Catholic moral theology. Pope John Paul II accepted brain death as a morally responsible standard for determining death, thus allowing for transplantation of vital organs after total cessation of all brain activity.
However, some moral theologians maintain that death comes only with complete cessation of all bodily functions, including breathing and circulation, which would make transplanting hearts and other vital organs very problematic if not impossible. The question has yet to be definitively addressed by the Church. At any rate, since Return to Me is very vague on the medical details surrounding Elizabeth’s death, it seems to me that, whatever view one takes of clinical death, one need not be too concerned on this point.
Return to Me has an easygoing Catholic vibe akin, but not identical, to Golden Age Hollywood piety; in fact, the movie blends nostalgia and irreverence for the Catholic Hollywood of Bing Crosby’s era.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.