Co-written: Lucy Crabtree and Ruth Buchanan
While the romantic comedy Return to Me may not have secured the cult status of some of its contemporaries (While You Were Sleeping and Sleepless in Seattle), what this film lacks in sheer popularity, it more than makes up for in humor and heart.
The story is framed as a romance between lonely widower Bob (David Duchovny) and feisty heart-transplant recipient Grace (Minnie Driver) who, unknowingly to them both, has received his deceased wife’s heart. At its core, however, Return to Me is really a family love story.
A story of comfort and care. Of heartache and hope. Of the richness that comes when romantic partnerships are rooted in the broader context of loving community.
We’ve all heard the old adage that it’s best when lovers are “friends first,” but in Return to Me, we witness how strong friendships can serve to ground the love between romantic partners.
Before Bob and Grace even meet, they are already deeply embedded in friendships. After recovering from her heart transplant, Grace spends nearly all her time at work with her grandpa Marty, his best friend Angelo, and their crew of old men jokesters—all of whom clearly view Grace as a granddaughter.
Any time Grace is off work, she’s with her married best friend Megan (Bonnie Hunt), Megan's husband Joe (Jim Belushi), and their five small children.
Sometimes they’re out and about, and sometimes they’re just hanging out doing puzzles at home. Through her friendship with Megan, “Aunt Grace” has been folded completely into the family.
Meanwhile, though Bob’s support system is smaller, he does have people who care. Chief among them is his friend Charlie (David Alan Grier).
When our story picks up, it’s clear Charlie is intent on saving Bob from his grief. To keep widowed Bob from spending Friday nights alone, Charlie goes out of his way to set him up on blind dates.
It’s on one of these ill-fated dates (with the hilarious Water Lady) that Bob first encounters Grace.
From the start, it’s obvious that though Bob and Grace are both single, they’re anything but alone. What helps them cope and sustains them isn’t romance.
Good Friends, Good Food
Barely visible in a few exterior shots of the restaurant (and caught only on the 782nd viewing) is a sign boasting the restaurant’s name: O’Reilly’s. Beneath that, the tagline: “Good friends, good food.”
True to its promise, this Irish-Italian restaurant, co-owned by Marty and Angelo, serves not only as the movie’s social hub but also as the backdrop for Bob and Grace’s meet-cute.
Bob is invited in, first by Charlie trying to set him up with Water Lady, then by the old men who invite Bob to join their poker game when he returns the next night looking for his cellphone (and hoping to run into Grace).
When Grace comes downstairs to check on her plants, Marty formally introduces them, and Angelo encourages Bob to go help Grace outside.
Horrified at being seen in her pajamas, she claims she doesn’t need help and scoots outside, closing the door behind her.
Bob turns to the old men and asks, “Should I go?” to which the chorus responds in the affirmative.
After some light banter about Grace’s shower cap and her flowers, Bob asks her out. Later that night, Grace bikes to Megan’s house just to tell her, “I met someone.” Bob, too, debriefs with a close friend—Sydney the gorilla.
From their first interactions, their respective communities are involved and invested.
We often think of couples as “pairing off.” What’s notable about Grace and Bob’s relationship is that the longer they date, the more time they spend in community with others.
Rather than witnessing them walking the city streets holding hands, dining at a table for two, or kissing against the backdrop of a glorious sunset, viewers catch flashes of the couple spending time with each other’s loved ones.
Like Lucy and Jack’s love in While You Were Sleeping, Grace and Bob find their membership, as Wendell Berry might call it, both within the larger community around them and the community that grows as a result of their pairing.
In the “falling in love” montage, a staple of romantic comedies, we see Bob holding Megan’s baby as the couple hangs out with the whole family. We witness Grace visiting Bob’s worksites, meeting Bob’s long-suffering construction crew, and spending time with Charlie. We learn that Bob and Grace have joined Marty’s bowling league, and it doesn’t seem that they’re doing it simply to humor the tight-knit group of old men.
They’re all clearly having a blast.
Though Charlie finds this situation baffling at first (asking Bob, “What’s up with all these senior citizens?”), he’s folded in as well, fast becoming a group favorite.
As Bob and Grace’s romance blossoms, their friends all become each other’s friends, providing an even richer soil into which their relationship sinks its roots.
Which is good, because they’re going to need it.
The course of true love never does run smooth, and when things inevitably fall apart for Grace and Bob, it’s going to take an entire community of friends (and a well-placed bicycling nun) to bring them back together.
In It Together
When things go wrong between Bob and Grace (Bonnie Hunt’s excellently enunciated revelation: “Grace has Bob’s dead wife’s heart!”), the crisis evokes a response from everyone else in their community.
Upon seeing Grace in tears and thinking Bob must have hurt her somehow, Joe wants to beat up Bob and defend Grace’s honor. Grace may be “Megan’s friend,” but in this moment, it’s Joe who’s ready to burn it all down on her behalf.
In an effort to give Bob some space and to clear her own head, Grace abruptly heads to Italy, causing Marty to worry and fret and consider changing his plans. Megan drives Grace to the airport, but not before Angelo, Marty, and Sophie stop by to see her off.
In a scene harkening back to their meet-cute earlier in the movie, Bob drops by the restaurant, once again hoping to catch sight of Grace. And once again, he encounters the old men first, and—not waiting for an invitation this time, because he’s part of the group now and doesn’t need one—bares his heart to them (“I miss Elizabeth … but I ache for Grace.”).
Marty ushers Bob outside to Grace’s garden for a, well, heart-to-heart: “Perhaps [Grace’s heart] was meant to be with you always.”
Bob and Grace’s relationship is about them, sure, but it’s not only about them. Woven as they are into the very fabric of their community, what happens to them also happens to the people closest to them.
And so it is with us—single, dating, married, partnered, or trapped in never-ending situationships. Whether we are in crisis or joy, withdrawn or engaged, the decisions we make always affect the people around us.
The truth is, Bob and Grace would never have met if not for their friends. Their relationship would not have flourished without their community. And they wouldn’t have found their way back to each other without the help of others.
None of us are as autonomous as we think.
In the film’s closing scenes, as the camera angle widens to offer viewers a final parting shot, the final moment doesn’t feature the happy couple kissing or sailing off into the sunset. Instead, it features the entire group—everyone together—singing, laughing, and celebrating a joyful event with music and dancing.
But to understand the end, we must circle back to the beginning.
When the film opens, the first words we hear aren’t spoken, but sung. As the opening credits flash across the screen and we’re treated to a birds-eye view of Chicago, Dean Martin croons “Return to Me.”
Words of heartache and loss. Of longing and belonging. Of returning and hurrying home.
The most obvious way this theme plays out is in Bob’s dead wife’s heart “returning” to him in Grace, and in each character finding a home in one another.
Yet the love song, like the movie it’s named after, transcends romance and ignites our imaginations by offering a vision for how we ourselves ought to live our own lives: keeping ourselves connected and grounded within the context of deep, committed community relationships.
Partnered or single, married or widowed, full family or partial family or found family—in order to thrive, we too return to each other, again and again, finding love and a home.