The year’s first unabashed chick flick is this effort from Susannah Grant, a screenwriter here making her directorial debut. To be fair, in “Catch and Release” she tries to add depth and poignancy to the usual games of romantic musical chairs, but the effort is heavy-handed and lumpy, and the outcome as formulaic as that of any cancellation-bound network sitcom. Lachrymose and lugubrious, this drippy dramedy tries to mix laughter and tears but earns only an exasperated frown.
It starts from an awkward premise: the imminent wedding of Gray (Jennifer Garner), a winsome Boulder bride-to-be, is turned into a funeral when her fiancJ Grady dies in a boating accident. But that’s not all. She soon discovers not only that unbeknownst to her, her intended was extremely wealthy, with major investments she knew nothing about, but also that he’d been paying monthly support money to another woman, Maureen (Juliette Lewis)—a rough-edged, vaguely hippie-esque L.A. masseuse with a young son called Mattie (Joshua Friesen) but no husband.
And there are other complications. Grady’s mother (Fiona Shaw) is pestering Gray to give her back the family engagement ring and is nonplussed when she’s informed that her son might have fathered a child. And when Gray’s financial circumstances force her to move back in with Grady’s old roommates, Gray finds herself attracted to the visiting Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), a handsome California filmmaker she initially dismisses as a brazen womanizer and who, she later finds out, was not unaware of Grady’s indiscretions. Meanwhile ordinary Joe Dennis (Sam Jaeger), Grady’s old partner in a fly-fishing business, is obviously besotted with her, though she has no interest in him, except as a friend—and he’s upset when he finds that she’s gravitating toward Fritz. Completing the odd household is the obese, wisecracking Sam (Kevin Smith), always ready with some wise observation that he’s memorized from the “words of wisdom” printed on the boxes of herbal produced by the company where he works.
If all this sounds very complicated, that’s because it is. Implausible, too: Grady’s mother is clearly a rich dowager, so it’s hard to believe that his friends could have thought he was living hand-to-mouth, or the woman he was about to marry would be unaware of the fact that he was probably well-off, whatever his lifestyle. It’s also cumbersomely morose pretty much throughout, most notably in a sequence involving a suicide attempt that comes completely out of left field. It’s entirely appropriate that Garner’s character is named Gray, because she spends so much of her time teary-eyed and downcast. It’s good to see the young actress out of her Electra costume, but on the evidence here, she’s doomed to play the roles that might once have gone to Julia Roberts, whom she resembles a bit, and that’s not a very promising place to be. Making matters particularly bad is the fact that Gray’s dialogue—and that dispensed to the other characters, too—has a affected, slightly forced quality that constantly sounds written rather than spoken, never more so than in Garner’s big scene, set at a dinner table, where the film’s title is explained. It’s supposed to be as high point, but instead comes across as unconvincing and ostentatiously “cute.” That’s typical of the sort of stuff Garner’s compelled to deal with here. It’s no wonder she can’t bring the material to life.
Nor can the other actors. Olyphant is hobbled by the fact that Fritz’s transformation from callow hot-shot to Mr. Sensitive seems to happen overnight, and in the later going he’s given little to do but smile and shrug quizzically toward the camera in amazement at the conduct of some other character—more male model than anything else. Lewis does her usual shtick in the sort of part she and Jennifer Tilly now seem to have a stranglehold on, Jaeger is so bland he practically disappears from the screen, and Shaw—though certainly more restrained than she was in “The Black Dahlia”—still comes on awfully strong. As for “Silent Bob” Smith, he’s a real chatterbox, expected to carry most of the comic relief on his burly shoulders. The rumpled, slightly goofy Sam is a welcome figure amidst the mostly gloomy people on display, but it must be added that there’s a bit too much of Smith on screen here in every sense. And young Friesen is surely one of the brattier tykes to make the screen in recent years. Making matters worse, Grant cuts away to him far too often, in the way that inexperienced directors frequently utilize reaction shots of children to fill in gaps in their footage. Perhaps we should be grateful that at least Grady didn’t have a dog she could have paired little Mattie with. (She makes do with Smith instead.)
Visually “Catch and Release” is fine; though John Lindsey’s cinematography is rather dark, that’s in keeping with the picture’s death-drenched scenario, and at least it makes the Colorado locations look inviting, not only in the Boulder scenes but in those where the characters go fishing in the wild, too. The background score, on the other hand, has an irritating habit of relying on pop tunes chosen to comment so bluntly on the action that the effect is often ludicrous.
In sum, you have to give Grant some credit for trying to do something different from the chick flick norm—something dealing with more serious issues in a less jokey way. It’s a pity she’s failed so abjectly to pull it off.