Return to Me (2000)


By Nitin Govil

The Tell-Tale Heart

Awaiting a heart transplant in her hospital room in Return to Me, Grace (Minnie Driver) feigns her last words, much to the momentary worry of her best friend, Megan (Bonnie Hunt), who sits dutifully by her bedside. “...Rosebud,” jokes Grace, referring to the most famous single word in American movie history, the dying word of Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. In the 1941 film, “Rosebud” is the key to the mystery of Kane’s life — it represents his lost innocence and his intense relationship with his mother that leads to a frenetically sublimated homosexuality, amongst other things (everyone was a Freudian in 1940s Hollywood) — but “Rosebud” also amounts to nothing, a phantom that haunts the narrative but presents no clear keys to the dead man’s “true” nature.

The narrative heart of Return to Me beats in rhythm with this tension between surface (what’s on the outside) and depth (it’s what’s inside that counts). Romantic comedy depends, of course, on surface and depth in order to generate its wonderful generic modes of speech, which include the wisecrack, the innuendo, and the double-entendre. The comedic interplay between surface and depth is part of Return to Me‘s allegiance to the genre, evident in its allusions to Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take it With You and Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck, among others. “I love those kinds of lines that make me smile,” Hunt said in a recent Variety interview. “This is not a screenplay that is full of blatant jokes. There are not a lot of one-liners. I didn’t want it to look farcical. I wanted some depth there.” However, as the opening shot of the film (which collapses a God-like point of view shot with that of a crane operator at a building site) demonstrates, Return to Me is more about the subtle interplay of depth and surface, “deep meaning” and pithy farce.

Set in Chicago, Return to Me tells the rueful story of Bob Rueland (David Duchovny), an architect who loses his zoologist wife Elizabeth (Joely Richardson) in a car accident, just after a dedication gala for the new gorilla annex at the zoo where she works. Grace Biggs (Minnie Driver) is a heart patient and orphan, parented by her grandfather Marty O’Reilly (Carroll O’Connor in thick Irish brogue), since her mother died when she was five. When she gets out of the hospital, Grace waitresses at an Italian-Irish restaurant, co-owned by Marty and her great-uncle Angelo Pardipillo (Robert Loggia). Bob suffers through a post-mourning dating drought until he meets Grace, who, unbeknownst to either of them, carries his dead wife’s transplanted heart in her body. Grace spends the remainder of the film struggling to tell Bob the that she has had a heart transplant, confiding in her best friend, and struggling with an overwhelming sense of guilt that’s all too common in the post-surgery psychology of donor recipients.

Not surprisingly, given the leads (we’re talking personality transplant when it comes to Duchovny), the film relies for much of its humor on its strong supporting cast. Hunt, who briefly considered the title role, plays best friend Megan, a middle-class mother married to the potty-mouthed Joe, played by James Belushi (and anyone waiting for a Duchovny to take it all off will have to settle for a Belushi, who could take the emaciated Duchovny in a tummy-rolling contest any day). Notably though, in a movie about frail bodies and strong souls, it’s the older cast members who get a big chunk of screen time. Returning to the big screen for the first time since 1974’s Law and Disorder, O’Connor plays Marty as a charming curmudgeon who holds a nightly card game with his brother-in-law and fellow seniors Emmett (Eddie Jones) and Wally (William Bronder), while the head waitress, Sophie (Marianne Muellerleile), brings the boys endless rounds of beer and cleans up the place. In fact, the film is staunchly supportive of the social security set both in front and behind the camera. Now 68, Hungarian veteran cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs (Easy Rider and Paper Moon) joins 75-year-old executive producer for the film, C.O. “Doc” Erickson, who worked as a production manager with Hitchcock on a number of films. Return to Me’ s age politics render it a kind of equal opportunity parable, just as American baby-boomers (the film’s secondary audience) are starting to think about retirement age. All the scenes featuring the older actors are designed around laconic one-liners that give us quick access to the depth of their wisdom.

Along with its obvious esteem for this older generation, Return to Me, Bonnie Hunt’s directorial debut, also demonstrates what respect for “family,” that is, a kind of old-fashioned values to go with its old-fashioned story. Hunt co-wrote the film with frequent collaborator Don Lake (who has a bit part as a guy with the worst hair transplant in history), whom she met during her stint with Chicago’s famed Second City comedy troupe. Surrounding herself with friends and relatives, Hunt has cast her mother, two brothers, two sisters, and a nephew in small supporting roles. Family connections suffuse the narrative as well, since Hunt based both O’Reilly and Rueland (named for Hunt’s grandmother) on her father, who died of a heart attack when she was 18.

While Hunt’s deep narrative investment in family may condition her desire to move deeper than the superficial and the farcical, it also seems a bit disingenuous, given her penchant for rapid one-liners in scripting Return to Me. Stranger still is the moment when the interplay between surface and depth crystallizes in a single scene. Grace, in front of her bedroom mirror, touches and ponders her 10-inch surgical scar that perfectly bifurcates her chest. Though she’s aware that “it’s what’s inside that counts” (literally), the number of references to her chest “being worked on” mitigate a positive relationship to the superficial remnant of her transformation, the scar. An uneasy cyborg (“She’s a woman, not a Buick,” yells Megan after the umpteenth “being worked on” joke), with a living organ grafted into her own body, Grace is like one of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s aliens, the Trill. The Trill are symbiants, dualistic beings composed of a liver-shaped sentient parasite that live inside a host body, which ages and dies while the parasite lives on, gets transferred to another body, and transposes the previous host’s memories and experiences onto the new host. Like the Trill — themselves positive metaphors for living with disease — Grace has a personal, almost psychic bond with the organ(ism) inside her. It throbs whenever Bob is nearby, it forges an unbreakable connection across life and death. The heart survives the death of one of its hosts, and is transported into another, where it retains the memory of its previous “life.”

Driver is the perfect actor to play the symbiant who passes as “normal” by covering up her scar with make-up and wearing neck-hugging attire. Passing — which is about the utility of surface appearance posing as a “deeper” identity formation — is a significant part of her star-text. Driver plays all variety of ethnicities in her films, from the Irish Benny Hogan in Circle of Friends, the Hispanic Carol Martinez in Barry Levinson’s Sleepers, to, most significantly, her role as a Jew passing as Gentile in 1998’s The Governess. In Return to Me, Driver is a British actor playing an Irish-Italian Chicagoan attempting to pass for a normal gal in need of love. The role attests to the ethnic malleability of her stardom, which is perhaps best reflected in her vocal performances, where she glides in and out of accents (note her flawless Chicago accent in this film) with a polished ease. Hollywood has taken note: Driver dubs Lady Eboshi’s voice in the English version of Hayao Miyazaki’s brilliant Princess Mononoke, plays Brooke Shield’s voice in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, and gives voice to the animated Jane in Tarzan. Her voice, along with a generous supply of body make-up (her skin color changes for every one of her roles), make her own of the most intriguing actors in the business, and her passing performances consistently play through ethnic/racial surfaces (voices and skin) in order to render the “depth” of identity as something that is amenable to impersonation.

Return to Me is also about “deeper” issues. It is, in more ways than one, a fantasy about perfect completion in the cycle of communication where the gift is returned, and the letter finds its sender, again. There are numerous examples of this fantasy in the film. Early on, we learn that Elizabeth has developed a sign language system to communicate with her gorilla, who later recognizes Grace with the same gesture he gave Elizabeth when she was alive. The film’s romance is triggered when Bob accidentally leaves his cell phone in the restaurant, an act that brings him together with Grace when he goes to retrieve it. And in a complicated narrative circle that sets the film in motion, Grace (after agonizing over the propriety of sending a thank you for a gift given out of someone else’s death) sends a letter to the donor agency in order to thank the (anonymous) donor family. The agency forwards the letter to Bob, who leaves it on his desk, where Grace finds it again and tucks it into her waistband to confront him with it later.

Most importantly, Return to Me is a mediation on the ultimate gift of a body organ. Usually given anonymously and without any compensation (unless you count the burgeoning illicit trade in body organs for cash), organ donorship is a type of gift-giving that is completely unlike the usual types of gifts given in our culture. Normal gifts carry with them a imperative to return, or at least exchange a gift at a later date: one gives wedding gifts, for example, and expects them to be returned if/when one gets married. Gift-giving drives the economy of reciprocity in Western culture, it negotiates through tense relations, it brings communities together. But heart transplants involve strictly one-way gifts, there’s no way to thank the donor, no way to return the gesture which saves your life. In the film, however, even the ultimate gift is normalized: it finds its way back, completing the cycle of heterosexual love and rendering it inevitable, a gift truly heaven sent, as the opening aerial shot sets up for us.

This recuperative narrative maneuver suggests that Return to Me is more than its marketing suggests, more than a comedy “straight from the heart.” Worthy, at the very least, of a footnote in Duchovny’s uncompleted dissertation project at Yale, “Magic and Technology in Contemporary Fiction,” the film is equal parts romantic comedy, science-fiction, love-after-death transubstantiation (think Ghost) and communications philosophy. Return to Me, like the film’s Irish-Italian restaurant that serves chicken vesuvio and pasta with cabbage, brings it all together in a modern-day melting pot, albeit one whose familial imperatives keep the pot from simmering over. The intricate narrative formula — made up of the intertwining of technology, fantasy, and coincidence — demonstrates the enormous lengths that the romantic comedy needs to go through in order to get its couple coupling by film’s end.

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