About 15 minutes into "Return To Me," the movie you've been watching -- which has so far seemed to star David Duchovny and Joely Richardson -- abruptly becomes a vehicle for Duchovny and Minnie Driver. The change is so jolting that you may think the projectionist missed a reel (a confusion that was expressed by many viewers at a recent preview). He didn't; you're merely in the midst of a poorly conceived film.
The rest of the movie displays all sorts of awkward characteristics: actors overplaying or underplaying their roles; camera placements that make scenes look like snapshots; clumsy changes in mood. Were this a student film, you'd expect to see it returned with a middling grade, covered with red-inked criticisms.
Since this is not a student film, but a debut effort by actor-turned-director Bonnie Hunt, it receives a lower grade. (You paid to see it; she didn't pay tuition for your critique.) Hunt doesn't limit her involvement to clumsy direction. She also co-stars (actually, this is the part she gets right) and co-wrote the film (ugh).
Duchovny plays Bob Rueland, an architect who loses his wife, Elizabeth (Richardson), in a car crash. In her absence, Bob falls in love with Grace Briggs (Driver), a pretty Italian waitress. Grace is shy because of a recent heart transplant. In that operation, she received a new organ from a deceased woman who ended her life as a car-crash victim. Get the picture?
If you get that much, you get it all, because all Hunt has her characters do is shilly-shally around the one link they all have with each other. That wouldn't be so bad -- as improbable movie situations go -- except that Richardson seems to go pretty well with Duchovny and Driver can't match up with him no matter how doe-eyed she gets. This couple couldn't make sparks with bottled lightning.
But Hunt presses on, and if you're absolutely convinced that pretty people make pretty movies, you might like the contrived cuteness she slathers over every scene. No matter what, though, she can't stop Duchovny from looking glum or Driver from looking goofy. Not even with the appearance of a chorus of ain't-we-quaint Italian gents led by Carroll O'Connor and Robert Loggia.
That's not to mention the annoying look of the film, which lays somewhere between "TV sitcom" and "industrial instruction" on the design scale.
Duchovny and Driver have both done excellent work in the past, and even though both have earned criticism for their occasional missteps (he for "Playing God," she for "Grosse Point Blank"), such failures remain uncharacteristic of what they can do. Let's hope the same can eventually be said of Hunt.