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by: Scott Renshaw

Long have I sung the praises of Bonnie Hunt, one of cinema's most effortlessly entertaining comic actresses. For years Hunt has brought a spark of devilish intelligence to roles that would vanish in other hands; she's the living embodiment of the cliche that there are no small parts, only small actors. It also always seems to be the case that her small parts have been in bad films (with the occasional notable exception like Jerry Maguire), a phenomenon that has baffled me to no end. I ask the gods of cinema: Why can't someone who brings so much to her every role find scripts that do her talents justice? Too often, I have been left unanswered.

Hunt, however, now appears to have taken a proactive approach to this dilemma -- if no one's going to offer her good scripts, she'll just have to write and direct them herself. She also shows herself so tuned into to her fellow supporting performers that she almost buries the leads. In Return to Me, Hunt tells the story of Bob Rueland (David Duchovny), a Chicago construction designer blissfully married to zoologist Elizabeth Rueland (Joely Richardson). But their happy marriage is cut short by a car accident that claims Elizabeth's life, leaving Bob despondent and introverted. The accident also provides a second chance for Grace Briggs (Minnie Driver), a woman with a congenital heart defect. She receives a donor heart from Elizabeth, and survives to begin a new life. One year later, Bob and Grace find their paths crossing, though neither party knows the connection that may be drawing them together.

The premise almost sounds like one of those semi-supernatural romantic comedies where a beloved spouse is somehow transformed into a member of the same sex, or a daughter's boyfriend, or a houseplant. Such business actually plays no part in Return to Me, which downplays the otherworldly element in Bob and Grace's relationship. In fact, Hunt downplays the relationship itself, taking her time bringing the two together, then playing up the reactions of their friends and family when they finally do come together. Duchovny is surprisingly effective as a romantic lead, and Driver is growing more luminous by the day, but their romance doesn't always feel like the central point of the film. Where many romantic comedies set up the protagonists in a vacuum, Return to Me comes dangerously close to making the protagonists themselves the vacuum.

If that's the case, it's only because there's so much wonderful business going on on the periphery. The sensational supporting ensemble begins with Hunt herself, who delights once again as Grace's best friend Megan, a married mother of five. She's nearly matched by James Belushi as her bearish, irresponsible husband, whose propensity for swearing in front of the children is good for laughs that should feel cheap, but somehow don't. There's also an Irish/Italian/Polish chorus of matchmakers in Grace's grandfather (Carroll O'Connor), her great-uncle (Robert Loggia) and their card-playing buddies, who debate the great dead singers between hands of poker. Hunt and co-writer Don Lake craft rich, funny situations so appealing that you wish every writer took half as much care developing supporting characters.

Of course, many writers take more care developing main characters. With a bit of hindsight, Return to Me feels more hollow than it should given all the laughs it generates. Hunt doesn't even seem entirely comfortable with how to build to her big payoff, following up a reunion between Bob and Grace with a coda that really should have preceded it. Still, I'm not sure I can recall the last time I responded to a scene as shamelessly romantic as Bob's timid request to hold Grace's hand. I certainly don't recall the last time a writer seemed so willing to share the wealth with the punch lines. Return to Me is a bit ragged, a bit sloppy, a bit over


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