Let’s face it, you don’t often see large families in romantic comedies. After all, the leads in a romantic comedy are just getting acquainted, or at least just falling in love. If you already have half a dozen kids, it might be a comedy, and it could possibly even be romantic, but it wouldn’t be a rom-com in the usual sense.
Writer-director Bonnie Hunt’s “Return to Me” is an old-school romantic comedy of the best sort, but it also makes room for a large Catholic family not unlike Hunt’s own. Hunt grew up the sixth of seven children in a Catholic family, and attended Notre Dame High School for Girls in Chicago, where the film is set. Hunt and Jim Belushi play long-married Megan and Joe Dayton, and although I’ve seen it a number of times, I’ve never gotten an exact count of how many children the Daytons have.
The leads are not, of course, Hunt and Belushi, but Minnie Driver and David Duchovny. Driver plays Grace, who is gravely ill from long-term heart disease; Duchovny plays a grieving widower whose wife died in a car crash, providing (unbeknownst to either of them) the new heart Grace needs. Megan is a nurse in the hospital where Grace is a patient, and the two are friends. (Hunt worked in real life as a registered nurse for five years before her entertainment career.)
“Return to Me” has an easygoing Catholic vibe akin, but not identical, to Golden Age Hollywood piety; in fact, the movie blends nostalgia and irreverence for the Catholic Hollywood of Bing Crosby’s era. Grace’s Irish grandfather Marty (Carroll O’Connor) recalls fondly that Crosby “made a lovely priest” (i.e., Father O’Malley in “Going My Way” in 1944, and “The Bells of St. Mary’s“), although another character counters that Crosby also “beat the hell out of his kids.”
That blend of traditionalism and irreverence runs through the film. “Return to Me” is remarkably chaste for a rom-com made in the past 15 years, but Megan offers Grace frank advice about not going too far on a first date: “Whatever you do, don’t shave your legs …. You’re with a guy, you find him attractive, everything he says sounds brilliant. Hairy legs are your link to reality.”
Then there’s the scene in which Grace is visiting Megan and Joe, and Joe confides to his wife, “I invited Rudy over. To meet Grace.”
“Father Rudy?” Megan asks incredulously.
“He’s not a priest any more,” Joe protests defensively, but Megan isn’t mollified: Father Rudy will always be a priest to her.
And, indeed, Rudy (Darryl Warren) shows up at the door — wearing his Roman collar. “I’m not used to being without it yet, Joe,” he says apologetically. Needless to say, jokes about the awkwardness of dating a laicized priest (along with others about using or avoiding vulgar language around a priest, former or not) would not have flown in Crosby’s day.
The film’s most Catholic moment, though, is another story. When a heart becomes available, Grace asks her grandfather’s prayers before surgery, and during the operation spends time in the hospital’s Catholic chapel along with Megan.
In the chapel, Marty and Megan light candles and pray. Marty invokes St. Michael the Archangel, admitting, “My wife never thought much of you, but you were always my favorite saint, because you’re a battler, you’re a fighter. Fight for us now, Michael. Fight for us.”
Hunt cuts back and forth between the chapel and the operating room, suggesting the power of prayer at work in the surgeons’ efforts. Then, at the scene’s climax, a closeup of a glowing votive candle fades to a heart monitor as the new heart begins beating on the soundtrack. It wouldn’t have been a heart transplant in a Crosby film, but it’s easy to imagine a similar “grace note” (so to speak) in a 1940s melodrama.
“Return to Me” is new on Blu-ray and DVD from Olive Films, in plenty of time for St. Valentine’s Day.