Catch and Release
Director: Susannah Grant
Starring: Jennifer Garner, Tim Olyphant, Kevin Smith, Juliette Lewis
“Erin Brokovich” writer Susannah Grant makes her directorial debut with a script of her own concoction, and proves a decent rookie director but a writer who should not be left to her own devices. Where the “Brokovich” script had the advantages of a factual basis and no less a director than Steven Soderbergh running the show, it seems Grant lacked perhaps a sounding board or critic to workshop her ideas, and the result is a sloppily disjointed movie that has lots of likable moments, but no momentum or consistency.
The film got a fair amount of laughs from the preview audience, and there are lots of individual likable scenes full earnestly likable characters. But in the end, it doesn’t come together into a story that you will believe, remember or noticeably enjoy. It’ll kill two hours, though, especially on a date night if you’re worried about filling an entire evening with, you know, conversation.
The plot is this: Devastated Jennifer Garner learns to fall in love again, with the least likely candidate among her late fiancÃ©’s group of friends (Garner appears to have no friends or family of her own, her interaction being entirely with her fiancÃ©’s three best buddies and her would’ve-been mother-in-law). She learns significantly unflattering things about her late love, which is the plot’s way of justifying the insanely quick mourning period before she crawls into bed with a character (Tim Olyphant) that we start out not liking, and are never really given much particular reason to change our mind about, though he at least turns out to be not as reprehensible as in his first scene, in which he seduces a catering assistant at the wake and screws her, in about 18 seconds, in a bathroom where Garner is hiding in the tub. The scene is played neither as broadly comic, though it seems to wish it were, nor as deeply horrific as it should be from Garner’s anguished point of view.
Speaking of anguish: The plot supposes that the fact that her dead fiancÃ© had lied to and cheated on Garner would heal fresh, immediate grief on this order in such a way that she’ll be ready to move on. Doesn’t work that way, and isn’t believable on the screen. Garner finds out that the man she loved for six years and was going to marry died with some very big and hurtful secrets. And she falls in love with the one man who helped him keep those secrets. No resentment toward the accomplice? No general “trust issues” after a betrayal like that? Really?
Three notes to Grant the writer: First, it ain’t a movie if it’s just a collection of bluntly placed plot points, laced with irrelevant scenes and painfully jarring shifts of tone. The film’s characters and situations barely hang together at all. The easy-going performance of Kevin Smith as one of the dead guy’s — and Garner’s — buddies seems at a glance as mere light comic relief but in fact is the only thing that unites the sad and self-contained Garner, the too-cool Olyphant, and the Other Guy, who’s secretly and boringly in love with Garner but won’t get her. Playing pretty much himself (with less profanity), Smith gently holds the entire film together.
Second note: Fall out of love with your characters. The only person who turns out to be unlikable — and interesting — in this film is the dead guy, and even he is redeemed in memoriam by the end. At one point, Garner tells Olyphant, “You’re not who I thought you were.” But he’s also not “¦ anyone, really. He’s just bland and he’s there and there’s no real explanation or understanding. He’s there to be the guy in the script that she falls in love with. And everyone has to be redeemed. Late in the film, we’re suddenly meant to care about the minor stories of the dead guy’s mother (who hasn’t been likable) and the friend who has secretly loved Garner for years (who hasn’t been interesting). But we don’t, and it’s really too late for the film to decide everyone needs to be important. Even Juliette Lewis, who enters the film as an unwanted, obnoxious invader, has to be part of the family by the time the credits roll.
Third note to the writer: Give up on the cutesy character names. Garner’s character is named “Gray,” her dead boyfriend is “Grady,” his apparently sexy Hollywood badboy replacement is named “Fritz.” It seems almost as though she’s having fun with us over it when she introduces a minor walk-on character named “Persephone,” but it feels more like hackery to go out of the way to find such quirky monikers for the cast. Especially when Garner’s character, her world suspended between wedding white and funeral black, gets the emotionally dead name “Gray.” Too precious by half.
Which is as strange as the wardrobing, by the way. Kevin Smith works for Celestial Seasonings, and thus wears CS T-shirts virtually all the time. Garner gives Olyphant a shirt that had belonged to the departed Grady. It says “Boulder” on it — a college shirt or something. Olyphant stands around in a touristy “California” T-shirt in another scene. I was half expecting Garner to show up in a “Grieving Near-Widow Ready to Move On” shirt before the flick ended.
With grief and healing so central to the story, Grant sure has a “¦ weird handle on the subject. Garner’s flawlessly likable but plodding character never gets angry about her loss, never seems hopeless and despondent and hardly cries. Kevin Smith takes the death harder, and when his character expresses — in a really poorly handled, quickly dismissed plot twist — guilt over the groom having died on the bachelor party trip Smith engineered, it’s odd that Garner seems never to have thought of the same thing. Of course Smith and the other groomsmen aren’t to blame, but Garner’s mild, girl-next-door reasonableness in the face of unimaginable loss just flattens the entire film. Garner’s character should be going through the wildest, most confusing time of her life, and yet everything is just “¦ so “¦ calm.
The best moments in this loosely contrived tableau are Smith’s. Grant hangs a lot of half-thought-out ideas on the guy, such as that he’s the guy who puts the deep quotes on boxes of Celestial Seasonings tea. That, his two-minute guilt subplot and his late-developing love interest in the film (no, he’s not hot for Garner, too) are really slight stuff as scripted, but Smith makes it work effortlessly. If only everything else in the film didn’t seem equally devoid of effort.