Return to Me

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All romantic comedies are now compared to “You’ve Got Mail,” which evidently was the most important film in the history of the genre. (I was not consulted on this decision.)

“Return to Me” is approximately as funny and ultimately as sweet as “You’ve Got Mail” — and in fact, if you found that film too sunny and its stars too perky and damnably likable, “Return to Me” is a better movie for you.

David Duchovny is more sardonic than Tom Hanks, and Minnie Driver is less spunky than Meg Ryan. Together, they don’t have quite the chemistry of the Romantic Dynamic Duo — really, does Duchovny have chemistry with ANYONE? — but they do make for a couple of interesting characters whose lives are more down-to-earth than the folks in “You’ve Got Mail.”

The premise here is less cutesy, too. Depending on how you look at it, it’s either very creepy or very romantic. Duchovny plays Bob Rueland, a construction-company owner whose zoologist wife Elizabeth (Joely Richardson) is killed in a car accident. She was an organ donor, though, and her heart is given to Grace (Minnie Driver), desperately in need of a transplant.

Through coincidence, Bob and Grace meet and start to fall in love, unaware of the connection they already share. Speaking in literal terms, it’s rather gross to think of your dead wife’s heart pumping blood in your new girlfriend’s body. But metaphorically, it’s extraordinarily poignant. In figurative terms, it’s Elizabeth’s “heart” that won Bob over in the first place, and now that heart still beats. In a way, Elizabeth is still alive, in Grace.

The film does not make as much of this sweet, original idea as it could, and in fact it doesn’t even become an issue until late in the film. Grace is self-conscious (perhaps unrealistically obsessively so) about the scar on her chest, as well as the fact that she has a heart condition — so she doesn’t tell Bob that she’s even had a transplant. When he does find out, and when they realize whose heart it was, he freaks out a bit.

The question is, why? It can’t be that knowing this will remind him constantly of his beloved Elizabeth: He’s been building a new gorilla habitat at the zoo, a project his wife had always wanted, in her honor; he’s reminded of her every single day. One can understand the shock of such a revelation, but Duchovny’s inscrutability makes it hard to fathom, what, exactly, he’s feeling.

Which is ultimately the film’s only major fault: Duchovny, while likable, is just too hard to read. In a romantic comedy, emotions and feelings are essential, and if someone refuses to show his, you’re going to have trouble.

Saving the film are its supporting characters. Grace’s sister Megan (Bonnie Hunt, also director), her grunty husband (Jim Belushi) and their wild kids provide some wonderful scenes of domestic comedy, and their grandfather (Carroll O’Connor) and his widower’s-club cronies are utterly charming in their humor, and in their acceptance of the much-younger Bob simply because his wife is dead, too.

The film does take too long to get going; it would have been better to start just after the death of Elizabeth. As it is, her scenes with Bob don’t establish well enough his love and devotion to her. If the film isn’t going to succeed in showing that, it might as well forget trying and just TELL us about it, after the fact.

Once it gets going, though, the film is largely entertaining, often sweet, occasionally even moving. It has its fits and starts, but winds up joyous in the end. It won’t be one of the best films of the year, but it’s certainly a fine date movie.

B (; PG, scattered profanities, brief hospital-related blood.)

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