Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Catch and Release

One of the strangest genre offshoots in film is the "moving on" subset of romantic comedy, in which the protagonist, having endured an unspeakable loss, must find love again while reconciling their guilt over moving on with life. Well, I say "strange:" learning to love again is a natural occurrence in the real world. But its depiction in film typically leaves me scratching my head. All too often, the protagonist finds love within months, and not just a steady relationship but love every bit as true as the one that was lost. Kevin Smith's Jersey Girl was a nice exception, advancing the story nearly a decade before trying to foist another relationship on the widower, but even then that time-jump served as an ellipsis for all that grieving.

Susannah Grant's Catch and Release might set the record for the shortest period of mourning ever put in one of these films. Gray (Jennifer Garner) mingles with the crowd at her fiancé Grady's funeral, internally monologuing about how much she hates having to deal with people at a time like this. This opening scene tells you everything that's about to go wrong with the film: Grant, the Oscar-nominated writer of Erin Brokovich, makes her directorial debut here, but she's clearly a writer first and foremost. The monologue only retreads what Garner quite capable conveys in silence on screen, drawing out what might have been an affecting moment into a clunky, repetitive bore. Oh, and the funeral just so happens to be on the day they were meant to be married, because apparently real life doesn't quite suck enough. Gray lives with Grady's roommates and friends, Dennis (Sam Jaeger), Grady's business partner; and Sam (Kevin Smith), an armchair philosopher who recites nuggets of wisdom gleaned not from books, but from the boxes of the herbal tea that he sells.

Also in the house is Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), Grady's other business partner and friend. Fritz immediately grates Gray, hooking up with a caterer at the funeral and even sleeping in Grady's bed. Gray doesn't understand why Fritz even stuck around after the funeral, until she notices that her fiancé sent $3,000 to an undisclosed recipient once a month and that some woman is leaving messages on his cell phone. Piecing together the evidence, as well as Fritz's worried attempts at misdirection, Gray realizes that her husband had an affair and that, according to Colorado law, all of Grady's money could potentially go to this woman's young child.

It's some weighty setup that might have worked had the film been about not canonizing the dead, but instead Grant uses this revelation as a justification of Gray's sudden and inexplicable attraction to Fritz, going from crippling grief to making out with a new dude within the week. And even if Fritz wasn't staying with the gang solely to run damage control for his dead friend, he lacks chemistry, with Gray or any other character, and instead suggests that a pretty face is all you need when you're dealing with death and betrayal.

Likewise, Jaeger and Garner fail to light up the screen. Jaeger's Dennis harbors his own feelings for Gray, but he spends so much time simply being forlorn around her that, as she hops into someone else's arms at an alarming rate, he seems to be more shaken up than the widow. Garner, who has a natural charm, is never given sufficient slack to roam with her character and to find her own voice, instead serving as a puppet for Grant's forced lines.

That lack of natural delivery is what leads me to believe that Grant, not the actors, deserves the blame for the stilted nature of the dialogue. Case in point: Kevin Smith, who put his own spin on his lines because he felt that he couldn't deliver what was on the page convincingly. Smith got away with it because he blamed the changes on his insecurity as an actor, yet his "colloquializing" of the dialogue makes him far and away the most interesting character of the film. For someone primarily known for appearing on-screen as a silent character who only pipes up to deliver a moment of alacrity to a conflicted soul, Smith brings his natural, conversational wit to the role and owns it: he's funny, warm, charming, lovable, sincere and -- in one moment that frankly should have come later in the film than it did -- heartbreaking. He's so good that everyone who appears in the scene with him gets a personality boost: Dennis becomes a great straight man, Gray gets out the emotion that for some reason she never properly exhibits elsewhere and Fritz, well, Fritz doesn't suck as much life out of the thing as he does without Kevin. The best, most touching, most realistic relationships in the whole film actually are Sam's interactions with Grady's lover and toddler.

But not even Smith can buoy this leaden, self-important snore-fest, a film that rushes the lives of its characters along yet still takes nearly two hours to reach its conclusion. That contrast between narrative length and running length leaves Catch and Release an interminable mess, a basket of cliché right down to its title, which becomes maddeningly punnish when we learn how much the characters like to fly fish. If you must watch it, do so to see Kevin Smith prove he could have a fun second career as an actor -- or maybe third; he does write comics now and then -- and for Juliette Lewis' off-kilter massage therapist, but bring a pillow for the rest of it.

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