There is an odd bunch of romantic films which pose problems of the human heart very literally – they are about love, but also about that organ pumping in people's chests.
Such movies tend to be concerned with teary matters of illness and surgery, like Tony Bill's extremely peculiar Untamed Heart (1993), about a sensitive young man (Christian Slater) who believes he possesses the heart of a baboon.
Return To Me should be called something on the order of Fugitive Heart. Architect Bob (David Duchovny) is completely in love with his wife, zoologist Elizabeth (Joely Richardson). Cruel fate intervenes early in this tale – so, on the operating table, Elizabeth's heart is plucked out for humanitarian recycling.
Meanwhile, on the folksy, working class side of town, sweet Grace (Minnie Driver) is having severe medical problems. Guess whose heart she gets? And then guess which soulful widower she meets? Grace, however, is so self-conscious about her surgical scars that she never lets Bob get close to her. From there, the emotional complications only get worse.
What kind of film can be made from this strange premise? A remake of Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), perhaps, in which a melancholic, obsessed man fixes on a woman because she carries his wife's heart? A perverse, black comedy about scars and organs, in the manner of David Cronenberg or Nagisa Oshima?
Director, co-writer and actor Bonnie Hunt (she's in Jerry Maguire ) has an old-style romantic comedy in mind. This means she has to invent many obstacles in the way of the true love that instantly sparks between Bob and Grace. And for us to be sufficiently agonised by these deferrals, we have to believe – as everyone in this movie so fervently does – that if Bob knew the truth about the origin of Grace's heart, he would just flip out.
I can accept the most outlandish movie premises, but this one did not win or convince me for a second. To pad out proceedings, Hunt lays on the incidental charm thick and fast: a restaurant in Chicago, a gang of four old guys and one jolly woman who act as Grace's guardian angels, velvety tunes by Dean Martin, a glimpse of sunny Italy, digs at boorish professionals.
Some if it is indeed funny and lovely. Duchovny and Driver exude an appealing, understated gentleness; their rapport is quietly intense. But the film soft-pedals its unlikely material too much of the way. Some outrageousness or vulgarity is required for it to really catch alight.
Still, Hunt – whose energies as writer/actor/director have since been taken up in her television series Life with Bonnie (2002-4) – will be an interesting filmmaker to watch in future. Her way with details – if not the broad strokes – is often deft and appealing.
© Adrian Martin August 2000.