Keeping the Faith and Return to Me: Weak Films, Nice Tries

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:54

    Return to Me directed by Bonnie Hunt

    Keeping the Faith directed by Edward Norton But sometimes great actors have bad notions. Paul Newman's longstanding interest in caper movies turns Where the Money Is into a metaphor for actors' rebirth through daring and performance. Once again Newman takes the part of an aged sharpie inspired to strut his stuff by randy youth (Linda Fiorentino, Dermot Mulroney) who need to be reborn to life and a sense of self-worth. Though Newman does this silkily, he's done it too often. It's his now-obscured career as a sensitive, tasteful film director that needs reviving. Movies like The Effect of Gamma Rays, Sometimes a Great Notion and The Glass Menagerie would make object lessons to actors like Hunt, Norton or Stanley Tucci, whose only excuse for directing is to protect his own acting career. (In Joe Gould's Secret Tucci's embarrassing non-use of the camera is matched only by the shameless hammy performance he indulges from a miscast Ian Holm.) Betty Thomas has even improved her usual static style to make Sandra Bullock more flinty and less annoying in 28 Days.

    These actor-directors demonstrate the need to climb out of the hole that has swallowed their profession. Redemption's barely possible when you earn your paycheck by outrunning fireballs, screaming at ghouls, killing Arabs, falsifying suburbia or burlesquing adolescence. But you gotta try. So Hunt and Norton both essay cute love stories for wider, humane implications. And where their films are weak, the spirit stays willing.

    "I ache for Grace," David Duchovny pleads as Bob, a man looking for his beloved (Minnie Driver as Grace) in Return to Me. This noncarnal confession is practically a peerless moment of romantic longing, though I could go back to Marie Riviere's "Oui!" shouted at the end of Eric Rohmer's 1986 Summer (Le Rayon Vert) to find comparable yearning. Return to Me isn't nearly so profound but it works on humorous, affectionate, American terms that are just about irresistible. Hunt, who also cowrote the film, is one of the most appealing modern character actresses (best known as Renee Zellweger's sister in Jerry Maguire) and the same generosity apparent in her acting carries over to Return to Me's love tale. Though the whimsically concocted story verges on the absurd, Hunt measures its characters' feelings with comic precision. She pointedly saves the midpoint synopsis for herself playing the proverbial best friend who blurts out, "Grace has Bob's dead wife's heart." It's a superb comic reading?punching the passive verb and weak noun. Try saying it five times without flubbing. You'll see why Hunt the actress is a pro.

    And Hunt the director is an emotional acrobat. Return to Me shows how love comes back into the life of Bob (Duchovny), a widowed architectural engineer, and Grace (Driver), a virginal waitress at a family-owned Irish-Italian restaurant. After maneuvering the first wife's death and Grace's heart transplant operation, Hunt shifts toward romantic comedy deliberately, meaningfully. It recalls the films of Frank Borzage, the great romantic director of the silent-to-sound era, whose interest in working-class and spiritual issues has been all but forgotten. Hunt doesn't quite have Borzage's unabashed sensitive touch, but she understands the need for companionship and camaraderie in everyday life. Her cast of actors fills out the Chicago setting by assuming the kind of regular behavior that sitcoms have coarsened. Yet Hunt gets a special sincerity out of her cast; portraying common people so graciously lends charm and worthiness to them as movie subjects. This happens through the accretion of plausible details rarely seen in movies anymore: how people behave at work and comport themselves in quiet, off-hours: feeding pets, wrestling with kids, reaching out by telephone, daydreaming in the bath.

    These small revelations will probably ensure that Return to Me remains a cultural secret (at least until its video release). We may have given up expecting movies to have personal relevance. But I'm certain more people will relate to these relationships than have found mirror images in American Beauty, Rules of Engagement or The Cider House Rules. And who would have expected it from a film with not-quite-stars Duchovny and Driver? They look enough like Everyperson to embody every person's needs.

    Hunt's craftsmanship and good actor's instinct (it's no surprise she once worked as a nurse) stresses the poignance of Duchovny's grand plea. As with Rohmer, more is at stake than merely hooking up. When Bob and Grace disconnect, destiny itself seems waylaid?due to his ignorance and her confusion. Hunt views human aspiration by the quality of personal relationships that becomes a measure of each character's faith. That may sound like a lot to expect from a romantic comedy, but it's what we've always appreciated whether the film was Bringing Up Baby or Afterglow. Return to Me's sense of immanence is gratifying. Hunt restores a human touch to a genre recently tainted by Norah Ephron, Rob Reiner, Chasing Amy and last year's The Love Letter. She emphasizes friendship, commiseration, goodwill and caring while You've Got Mail was hideously uncivil in its disregard of marriage and assertion of distrust in order to fake plot symmetry uniting Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan at their bloated, pasty, fatuous worst. It was more suggestive of Ephron's own lapsed humanism?her commitment to affluence and her blithe regard of divorce and infidelity?than concern with how human beings project desire and sensitivity.

    It feels wacky to state these objections at once yet it's disarming to see them supported and acted out. Bob and Grace's compassion is reflected in Return to Me's amiable ethnic context (the kind falsified in the arch, miscast Moonstruck). Duchovny and Driver manage a persuasive decency; he's wary of attachment, she's shy about her heart?and the surgical scar on her breastplate. They're commented upon by regulars at O'Reilly's, an Irish-Italian restaurant where a likely group of widowers displays seldom-seen urban conviviality. These archetypal performances are headed by Robert Loggia and Carroll O'Connor who, as Grace's grandfather, gives a surprisingly great, subtle performance. It's striking to realize that in O'Connor's long career he has not before played an Irish-American patriarch; he must have saved up all he knows for this simple, recognizable, superb portrayal.

    Borzage was honest about such white ethnic American life, as Hollywood movies generally were before the Depression when the ethnic working class was considered a deserving (not depressing) topic. Since the Depression and the post-WWII boom, commonplace experience and virtues have been ignored by Hollywood; and along with that the storyteller's interest in portraying basic efforts to love, to live together. Return to Me's comic realism recalls Borzage's Humoresque, Bad Girl and After Tomorrow and its mysticism is almost as out-front. Of course, a contemporary commercial artist like Hunt doesn't dare Borzage's belief in faith and miracles but her storytelling has an apparent spiritual essence (announced in an awesome opening shot that combines Dean Martin's pop swing with the ineffable). Hunt's own bedrock performance as a good-natured woman dandling kids and a stereotypically gruff, kind husband (Jim Belushi, with whom she mocks their "rhythm" together) builds a frankly Catholic sensibility so rare onscreen simply identifying it proves refreshing.

    That Return to Me falls short of Borzage's insight is apparent at the points most nearly equaling it. When Grace runs from David, retreating to a vacation in Italy, she takes along his gift of a red bicycle. This object of affection transmits their hopes and needs; it also, literally, becomes the vehicle that brings him back to her. What filmmaker today has the confidence to invest that symbol with full sentiment? (Spielberg? Newman?) Hunt's perhaps too reticent about it, so the Italy segment seems needlessly extended and tacked on, rather than spiritually fulfilling. But its blessed tone wins one over anyway. Helped by Lazslo Kovacs' best photography in years, each setting glisters appropriately. The Italian wrap-up may be a reference to Paul Mazursky's Blume in Love?the second recent homage (following Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut) to sometime-actor Mazursky's now-forgotten notion of romantic desire and humane complication.

    There are loads of grace notes throughout Return to Me, bits conveying goodness and variety in life. (A few involve Bob's black coworker David Alan Grier; most feature the O'Reilly's gang, including a subplot courtship between a middle-aged couple eager to share the young lovers' glow.) Though pleasant to watch, these scenes also cause the movie to meander; it seems fixated on its own wonderfulness. But when a filmmaker does something this terrifically gentle, one is reminded of Sade's dulcet query, "Is It a Crime?"

    Hunt proves she knows what she's doing from the first moment, when her camera descends from the heavens upon Bob?the kind of shot Borzage would have understood. It also recalls Orson Welles' dictum that a film's opening shot should grab the audience's attention. But Hunt also understands Welles' implicit command that such a shot also be expressive. Like Borzage, she puts spirituality into her mise-en-scene. Compare that to Edward Norton's cliched, unimpressive opening aerial shots of New York skyscrapers in Keeping the Faith. You sense immediately that Norton as director has no faith in this tale about conflicting beliefs and ethnic manners. Norton plays Brian, a young priest who is still best friends with childhood buddy Jake (Ben Stiller), a young rabbi. As kids they musketeered with Anna (Jenna Elfman), who moved away from the Upper West Side but now returns to them a sexy, successful businesswoman, testing Brian's vows and his friendship with Jake.

    Norton's wonderful plainness and subtle sincerity gives depth to Brian's moments of comic dejection, making this more than an extended priest-and-a-rabbi joke. But Stiller, coming off his rare good film performance in Toback's Black and White, holds things at a jokey level and Elfman can't compete with Driver's glow and serenity. Where in this triangle is Anna's spiritual crisis or lesson? Even her fairytale Hollywood conversion is glossed over as a matter of social convenience. Keeping the Faith was pleasant enough to sit through but afterward it crumbles. Norton's choice of a project more substantive than the recent crap he's wasted himself on (Fight Club, Rounders) suggests he is an artist of integrity, not a whore. But he can't stretch acting ingenuity into filmmaking finesse. Norton's an extraordinary actor?potentially as good as Paul Newman?but as a director, he's no Bonnie Hunt.