"Return to Me," Bonnie Hunt's feature directorial debut, is a simplistic, highly contrived romantic comedy about the mysterious workings of fate -- in this case, a love affair between a young widower and a waitress who, unbeknownst to him, has received his late wife's transplanted heart. How successful this harmless but unexciting confection will be at the B.O. will depend greatly upon whether David Duchovny's "X-Files" fans support the film. Beyond that, however, this serio-comedy does have a number of other commercial points in its favor: a PG rating, an amiable performance by Minnie Driver, and a skillful senior supporting cast, most prominently Carroll O'Connor in his first studio feature in more than 25 years.

“Return to Me,” Bonnie Hunt’s feature directorial debut, is a simplistic, highly contrived romantic comedy about the mysterious workings of fate — in this case, a love affair between a young widower and a waitress who, unbeknownst to him, has received his late wife’s transplanted heart. How successful this harmless but unexciting confection will be at the B.O. will depend greatly upon whether David Duchovny’s “X-Files” fans support the film. Beyond that, however, this serio-comedy does have a number of other commercial points in its favor: a PG rating, an amiable performance by Minnie Driver, and a skillful senior supporting cast, most prominently Carroll O’Connor in his first studio feature in more than 25 years.

As an actress, Hunt has made her mark in mostly comic roles that recall the snappy delivery style of Eve Arden. But as a helmer and co-scripter, she has opted for safe middlebrow and predictable fare — pic is marketed as “a comedy straight from the heart.” Taking its title from a Dean Martin song, “Return to Me” strives to gain situate itself in the territory of “Moonstruck,” which also exploited a Martin song and used several older characters as a Greek chorus commenting on the actions of the younger protagonists. As lightweight in ideas as “Moonstruck” was, at least it boasted major stars and buckets of charm that “Return” lacks.

First reel chronicles the happy marriage of Bob Rueland (Duchovny), a successful architect-engineer, and Elizabeth (Joely Richardson), an ambitious zoologist who devotes herself to the construction of a new gorilla habitat at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, until her untimely death in an accident.

Living a routine existence in the same city is Grace Briggs (Driver), a waitress at O’Reilly’s, no doubt the town’s only Irish-Italian restaurant. Living with her loving grandpa Marty (O’Connor), Grace is a shy woman about to receive a new lease on life through a heart transplant. Since the audience knows that Grace’s new heart will come from Elizabeth, pic’s only puzzles concern the specific circumstances under which Bob and Grace will meet and when will Grace tell him about her link to his wife.

In the wake of his mate’s sudden death, Bob sinks into deep depression, his only consolation being the companionship of their dog. Matchmaking efforts by his veterinarian friend Charlie (David Alan Grier) prove fruitless as Bob is not quite ready to start over. That is, until he meets Grace at her family’s restaurant, which he patronizes on what turns out to be a disastrous blind date. Shy Grace, who’s haunted by the tragic circumstances that took her mother from her when she was a child, begins to blossom as Bob pays more and more attention to her.

Lacking wit and sophistication, “Return to Me” registers as a sappy, life-affirming fairy tale whose only link to reality is Bob’s sense of loss.

About half of the yarn is set at O’Reilly’s, a venerable joint where a lively clique of oldsters watch over Grace — and dispense wisdom. Group includes grandpa Marty, Italian uncle Angelo (Robert Loggia), lonely-hearts Emmett (Eddie Jones), Wally (William Bronder) and Sophie (Marianne Muellerleile). Very much in the spirit of “Moonstruck,” though sans that movie’s canny intelligence, pic panders aggressively to its senior citizens.

Suffering from draggy pacing and excessive running time, comedy occasionally comes to life in scenes set in the home of Megan (Bonnie Hunt), Grace’s best friend and a mother of five, and her vulgar working class hubby, Joe (James Belushi). That the saga ends happily with the wedding of two of its senior characters, rather than that of the romantic leads, smacks of political correctness as well as film’s intent to win the older demographics.

Sights of Rome, where aspiring painter Grace goes to rethink her life and art, offer some delights, though here, too, helmer can’t resist being cute when she shows how some local nuns get excited and go for a euphoric ride on Grace’s red bike. Production values, particularly lensing by vet Laszlo Kovacs, are proficient, and acting of Duchovny and Driver is decent, though both thesps deserve much better material.

Return to Me

Production

An MGM release of a JLT production. Produced by Jennie Lew Tugend. Executive producers, C.O. Erickson, Melanie Greene. Directed by Bonnie Hunt. Screenplay, Hunt, Don Lake, based on a story by Hunt, Lake, Andrew Stern, Samantha Goodman.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Laszlo Kovacs; editor, Garth Craven; music, Nicholas Pike; executive music producer, Joel Sill; production designer, Brent Thomas; art director, Dave Krummel; set designer, Kerry Sanders; set decorator, Daniel Clancy; costume designer, Lis Bothwell; sound (DTS), Scott D. Smith; supervising sound editor, Robert Grieve; visual effects, the Digital Film Group -- The Post Group; assistant director, Artist Robinson; casting, Mali Finn. Reviewed at MGM screening room, Santa Monica, March. 16, 2000. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 113 MIN.

With

Bob Rueland - David Duchovny Grace Briggs - Minnie Driver Marty O'Reilly - Carroll O'Connor Angelo Pardipillo - Robert Loggia Megan Dayton - Bonnie Hunt Charlie Johnson - David Alan Grier Elizabeth Rueland - Joely Richardson Emmett McFadden - Eddie Jones Joe Dayton - James Belushi Sophie - Marianne Muellerleile Wally Jatczak - William Bronder
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