Saving Grace

The dreadful Return to Me is probably just a classic ahead of its time.

Return to Me
Minnie and Mulder, muddling through the morass.
Minnie and Mulder, muddling through the morass.
What's your pick for the most ridiculous movie ever made? The Conqueror, starring John Wayne as Mongol emperor Ghengis Khan? How about The Manitou, in which the grizzled head of an Indian medicine man sprouts from Susan Strasberg's neck? The musical remake of Lost Horizon surely deserves a couple of votes, and there's no ignoring the 1973 movie version of Richard Bach's bestseller about an existentialist talking seagull.

Alas, another candidate for enshrinement now staggers into the fray. Are you ready? In Return to Me, a romantic fable set in Chicago, transplant patient Minnie Driver has to tell her new boyfriend, grieving widower David Duchovny, that she's the recipient of his dead wife's heart.

A prize-winning premise, to be sure. But that's not all. The heroine, whose name is Grace, works in a place called O'Reilly's Italian Restaurant, where the waitstaff, God help us all, sing, and the house special is -- we're not kidding here -- corned beef and cabbage soufflé. That's still not all. The hero, whose name is Bob, spends most of his time at the zoo, building a new habitat for the ape his late anthropologist wife (Joely Richardson) devoted her life to. The ape, whose name is Sydney, is the most appealing character in the cast, but after this bomb he'll probably never work in pictures again.

For what it's worth, Dean Martin sings the title song on the soundtrack.

Forward-looking moviegoers have to be thinking one thing: Return to Me is destined for the kind of cult status reserved for One Million Years B.C., Ishtar, and the collected works of Ed Wood. At the moment, that may not give much solace to the perpetrators, who include first-time writer-director Bonnie Hunt and co-writer Don Lake, but the public is almost never wrong when it comes to artistic judgments. In time, the ticket-buying throngs are bound to make this thing a classic, cherished forever in the bad-movie annals, booked on a double bill with Attack of the 50-Foot Woman.

For now, it should suffice to recount a few more of the details -- all of which are calculated to charm our socks off. First, we've got the fact that the heroine is not just a waitress but a painter. Because of her (previously) bad ticker, she explains, she's never been outside the city limits, but that doesn't keep her from imagining exotic views of far-off places, which she commits to canvas with dogged persistence, if not much skill. Second, our Grace is cared for and worried over by a gaggle of old men -- some of them storybook Irish, some storybook Italian -- who spend most of their time at a back table of the aforementioned restaurant playing cards, arguing, and trying to marry Grace off. Once in a while they dance with each other. Chief among these wise old nurturers is Carroll O'Connor as Grace's grandfather, in whom a brogue as thick as a pint of Guinness has been installed. It falls to him, late in the movie, to instruct the troubled hero on the heroine's emotional and anatomical state: "When she met you," he lilts, "her heart beat truly for the first time."

Well, something like that. Among Return to Me's several conceits is the implication that both Sydney the ape and Bob's dog Mel instinctively recognize the presence of their former mistress's heart in the body of this new woman, even if good old Bob doesn't. For her part, Grace is wracked by survivor's guilt. "I'm alive because someone else is dead," she laments. Don't count on it. The chin-heavy camera angles and unintended horror-movie lighting inflicted on Minnie Driver here by director of photography Laszlo Kovacs add up to one of the most unflattering visual portraits of a leading lady you'll ever behold -- especially in what's supposed to be a romantic comedy. Sometimes, it looks as though Grace didn't get her transplant at all and died at the hospital. Kovacs, usually one of the best in the business, must have taken Stevie Wonder pills.

But neither crappy lighting nor shocking revelations about recycled body parts can keep our lovers from reuniting at the end -- in Rome, no less -- and presumably living happily ever after. Two hearts beating as one and all that.

As for poor Duchovny: What can you say about a reasonably competent FBI agent who, through what must be the evil connivance of extraterrestrials -- or his agent -- winds up in a feature film this dreadful? Duchovny works very hard playing a decent, thoughtful, good-hearted kind of guy, but between the Frankensteinian suggestions of the plot and the corn he's called upon to recite, it's a good bet he'd be happy if Return to Me vanished into an X-file of its very own sometime very soon.

Probably won't happen, though. Movies this terrible have a way of living on, like vampires. Meanwhile, we eagerly await the sequel, in which Leonardo DiCaprio must tell Johnny Wadd's widow that he's now equipped with her dead husband's sex organ, while, over a plate of corned beef and cabbage soufflé, she tearfully admits to expropriating Barbra Streisand's nose.

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