(2 out of 4 stars)


Jennifer Garner stars in Columbia Pictures’ Catch and Release. Photo by Mark Fellman

At times, Catch and Release wants to be an inspirational drama about a young woman who is forced to reevaluate her life and her future in the face of tragedy.  At other times, the romantic dramedy wants to be a standard-issue movie involving a couple of complete opposites who unexpectedly find themselves drawn to each other.  Finally, perhaps as a sop to the males in the audience who have been dragged to the theater by their girlfriends, it also wants to be a quirky indie-style comedy in the vein of the works of Kevin Smith—so much so, in fact, that Smith himself appears in a key supporting role.  Watching the pic is akin to listening to an iPod stuck permanently on shuffle—some of the individual bits are entertaining enough, but anyone looking for a complete and consistent experience is going to come away disappointed.

In her first role since the end of the late, great Alias, Jennifer Garner stars as Gray Wheeler, a young woman whose seemingly perfect existence is turned upside-down when her fiancée is killed in an accident just before their wedding.  Adrift and in a fog inspired by equal parts grief and tranquilizers, she moves in with her fiancée’s best friends—gregarious slacker Sam (Kevin Smith), tightly-wound Dennis (Sam Jaeger), and Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), the kind of too-cool-for-school Lothario whose edginess is personified by his ability to get stoned and laid during the wake—for support while trying to figure out the next steps in her life.

Before long, Gray receives two bombshells about the man with whom she had planned on spending the rest of her life.  The first is the fact that he apparently had over a million dollars socked away about which she knew nothing.  The second is that some of that money had been going off to Maureen (Juliette Lewis), a massage therapist in LA to go toward raising the child that the fiancée non grata apparently fathered with her while on one of his many business trips away from Gray.

From this point, the film goes off into any number of directions.  Not surprisingly, Gray begins to find herself strangely attracted to Fritz, even after learning that he knew more about Maureen and the kid than he initially let on.  Also not surprisingly, it turns out that the straight-arrow Dennis has a well-disguised crush on Gray as well (and by “well-disguised,” I mean “he may as well have ‘I HEART GRAY’ scribbled on his forehead in every scene), and he is devastated to see her slipping away from him once again into someone else’s arms.

Timothy Olyphant and Jennifer Garner star in Columbia Pictures’ Catch and Release. Photo by Doug Curran

The problem with Catch and Release, aside from the relentless predictability of the material, is that writer-director Susannah Grant never really demonstrates a clear and coherent approach to the material—scenes lurch from soppy sentimentality to slapstick comedy to over-the-top melodrama with only the most ragged of transitions.  (More than once, Grant is reduced to pushing the story along by the Film School 101 convention of having someone overhearing a conversation that he or she wasn’t supposed to hear.)  It could be argued that Grant is trying to approximate the ebb-and-flow of real life, where laughter and grief often walk hand in hand, but the results feel more like first-time director Grant shot a lot of footage without having any real idea of how to put it together in the editing room.

Although Catch and Release is a pretty bad movie, it isn’t a completely unendurable one, and that is due almost entirely to the efforts of Jennifer Garner and Kevin Smith.  Although Garner’s role doesn’t give her a chance to demonstrate a fraction of the considerable dramatic range that she managed to display in even the weakest episodes of Alias, she is so naturally charming and appealing throughout that you’ll find yourself still kind of rooting for her even after you’ve given up on the rest of the film.

And in his first major role in a film not of his own creation, Smith brings some much-needed snap to the proceedings with a series of quirky one-liners and observations that capture enough of the voice that he carved out in his own efforts to make me suspect that he probably had a hand in rewriting his dialogue.  when he appears.