“RETURN” PUTS SOME HEART INTO GENRE; DUCHOVNY AND DRIVER PAIR WELL IN A TALE OF SECOND CHANCES AT LIFE AND PASSION

In postmodern Hollywood where irony without wit is the defining sentiment, romantic comedies ends up awash in mawkish sentimentality or overwhelmed by calculated superstar pairings. So when a lighthearted romance comes along like Bonnie Hunt’s directorial debut, “Return to Me,” the delight is rediscovering the subtleties of love without crushing it with star power or cynicism.

Unlike its contemporary romantic peers, “Return to Me” doesn’t use mean-spiritedness or manipulation to advance the relationship. The lovers don’t hate each other on first sight, they don’t own competing businesses, no dogs are stolen and no body doubles are used.

Chicago architect engineer Bob Rueland (David Duchovny) is passionately married to Elizabeth Rueland (Joely Richardson), a zoologist who teaches gorillas sign language. Meanwhile, Grace Briggs (Minnie Driver) is waiting on a hospital bed and on the border of life and death.

A year later, the grieving widower has become obsessed with building the gorilla habitat for which his wife had spent years fund-raising, while Grace is slowly exploring a world she had been physically unable to take. It’s at O’Reilly’s restaurant where the two meet: Grace, the owner’s granddaughter, works as a waitress there, and Bob is on an excruciating blind date arranged by his well-meaning veterinarian pal, Dr. Charlie Johnson (David Alan Grier).

Clearly from the heart-to-heart transfer premise alone, “Return to Me” embraces the fantastic. That doesn’t interfere with liberal doses of reality. Director and co-writer Hunt takes the bold move of showing Duchovny and Richardson happily in love, then killing her off. While her death is no surprise to the audience after all, we’re expecting Driver, not Richardson how much she is allowed to develop and how much Duchovny is shown grieving over her is. It’s a gamble that pays off. In fact, showing Duchovny twice in love doubles the romance quotient.

There’s always deception at the heart of a romantic comedy, and it’s taken literally here. Grace hides her scar not because of aesthetics, but because she doesn’t want the exaggerated solicitude she gets as a heart transplant recipient. Despite being sheltered, she’s smart, confident and wants to be taken on her own terms. Meanwhile, Bob doesn’t hide his sorrow or love for his wife; it’s a given, and he’s willing to move on without suffering the clichd anguish that somehow he’s betraying her memory.

The title, which borrows from the Dean Martin song, might sound self-involved, but actually there’s a strong sense of family. Hunt, as a Second City comedy troupe graduate, carries on the Chicago theater group’s emphasis on community. The ensemble cast includes overprotective granddad Carroll O’Connor and Italian uncle Robert Loggia, who co-own O’Reilly’s. It’s triple the ethnic potency of “Moonstruck” or “Crossing Delancy,” with their Polish poker-playing and bowling comrades. Hunt here pays adoring homage to her Irish-Italian Chicago roots, and the slice-of-life details ground the fantasy just enough to make it maybe not plausible, but believable.

As for that all-important chemistry, Driver and Duchovny come together well. That’s a relief for Duchovny fans: Despite starting out in the movies, the “X-Files” star hasn’t exactly been able to negotiate his low-key intellectual charisma onto the big screen. He still has a little stiffness, but makes for a solid romantic leading man (no thanks to HBO’s “Red Shoe Diaries”).

While Driver is hiding her heart-transplant scar from Duchovny with turtlenecks and buttoned blouses, director Hunt plays her very fertile friend Maggie. The best friend one of the greatest stock characters in romantic comedy has become a token of late, but the friendship between Grace and the wise-cracking Maggie resonates sincerely. Meanwhile, Maggie takes care of five kids with her husband Joe (Jim Belushi), and the minute-by-minute glamour of picking up after a brood doesn’t diminish their mutual sexual attraction for one another. That’s another tribute Hunt has paid to the old neighborhood, worlds away from the usual love-ends-after-the-credits scenario.

With all the contortions that movie lovers have to go through nowadays, “Return to Me” is rejuvenating in its return to the old-fashioned love affair.

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