By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated March 31, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

The effortlessly appealing Bonnie Hunt, who debuts as a feature director, also costars as the stalwart best friend of the leading lady in Return to Me. It’s a supporting role Hunt knows well, kin to the snappy sister she played in ”Jerry Maguire.” But as inevitably happens, Hunt is so vibrant that the movie suffers when she’s not around.

That ”Return to Me” is a frothy ethnic love story/medical triumph, part ”Moonstruck,” part ”ER,” isn’t a problem; the movie fulfills its contract as a fairy tale. That the glossy designated hero and heroine dim next to Hunt’s throwaway sparkle IS. David Duchovny plays Bob, a gifted architect whose zoologist wife (Joely Richardson) dies in a car accident. Minnie Driver is Grace, a sunny but literally heartsick waitress at her family’s homey bistro, who benefits from Bob’s tragedy when she receives his late wife’s ticker. When Bob unknowingly plunks his heinie down in Grace’s diner, her Irish grandpa (Carroll O’Connor), her Italian great-uncle (Robert Loggia), and their melting-pot cronies do a matchmaking jig.

”Return to Me” (cowritten with Don Lake) is Hunt’s doilied valentine to jump-starting love; it’s also a billet-doux to her native Chicago. (Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs saturates the city with ripe color.) But the director is stymied by the lack of flutter between the would-be lovers. The alluringly deadpan Duchovny — his taste for light, subversive comedy so often hidden by ”X-Files” grimaces — can make no headway with Driver, who looks perpetually lacquered and ready for her In Style close-up.

Which brings me back to Hunt. There’s more hotcha in one moment of flirty-comfy bantering between Hunt (as a mother of five!) and marvelous James Belushi as her beer-drinking, bare-bellied husband than in two hours of Duchovny and Driver revolving in their separate orbits around the Second City planet of love. Moonstruck? These two are movie-star struck.