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

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Return to
by Bonnie Hunt

the Faith
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
, 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
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
) 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
’s comic realism recalls Borzage’s Humoresque, Bad
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.