Susanna Grant knows how to write a movie about identifiable people in real situations. The screenwriter, who penned Erin Brockovich and In Her Shoes has a knack for conveying her characters’ emotions without resorting to melodrama or heavy-handedness. In addition to writing the script for Catch and Release, Grant also makes her debut as a director. The movie takes subject matter that seems depressing and infuses it with humor and warmth.
Jennifer Garner plays Gray Wheeler, a young woman whose fiancée has just died in an accident. Almost immediately after the funeral, she learns that he had been keeping secrets from her. One was that he had a million dollars tucked away in a bank account. The second was that he fathered a child to another woman, a massage therapist from California named Maureen (Juliette Lewis).
Confused by it all and needing somewhere to turn, she moves in with her fiancée’s roommates, Dennis (Sam Jaeger) and Sam (Kevin Smith). They’re both dealing with their own feelings over their friend’s death in different ways. Dennis dedicates himself to erecting a memorial, while Sam binges on food and alcohol to dull the pain. Also hanging around the house is old buddy Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), who has the delicate task of telling Gray that he knew some of the secrets.
Gray’s initial response to everything is shock. That turns to anger as she starts to resent her fiancée for leading a secret life behind her back. She begins counting all the little things he didn’t know about her as a means of retaliation. She also forms an impulsive connection with Fritz, whose initial loutish ways appear to be a form of covering the pain he feels. Although Gray has lots of friends for support, Fritz is, in essence, the one who most truly understands what she’s going through. A secret romance blossoms between them, yet neither is completely sure whether it’s real or just a way of clinging to life in the face of death.
Given the plot elements, you would expect Catch and Release to robotically hit certain designated beats at very specific times. Under the watch of a different filmmaker, it might have very predictably inched along, overstating how each character learns an Important Life Lesson. However, the film’s tone is a little less solidified than that. Yes, everyone changes in some significant way by the end, but the story isn’t overly concerned with marching from one plot point to the next. At times, it almost feels like it is meandering, watching Gray and her friends as they struggle to make sense of their lives post-tragedy. It’s true that the characters are trying to find their way in a situation for which there is no rule book, and the movie’s approach effectively adopts that feeling of emotionally treading water. It’s nice to see a film that isn’t afraid to hang with its subjects for a while.
I also like how it sidesteps some of the clichés you naturally anticipate. For example, Maureen is not the unsympathetic, gold-digging mistress that she would have been in many other movies. Instead, she is a good mother trying to take care of the son she had with a man she cared about. We believe it when Gray actually befriends her. There is also an unexpected bond formed between the little boy and Sam, who discovers paternal instincts he never knew he possessed. A subplot involving Gray and her would-be mother-in-law initially surprises us with how tense it is; eventually, that tension evolves into something else.
The title Catch and Release refers to a style of fishing practiced by Gray’s fiancée. While the idea of throwing a fish back after catching it seems humane, she points out that it only causes the fish to suffer pain for no valid higher purpose. That metaphor applies to her and the others. They’ve all suffered pain and are struggling to find meaning in it.
Believe it or not, this is not a downer. I think that’s because it’s not so much a story about grief itself as it is about how people carry on after grieving. The characters are all good people who are not behaving normally after a tragedy. They alternate between moments of reaching out to others and moments of selfishness. There’s a strange type of humor in that kind of conflicted human behavior, and Catch and Release finds it.
Jennifer Garner is very good in her role, again displaying the inherent likeability that has made her a star. Many of the biggest laughs come courtesy of Kevin Smith, making a departure from his Silent Bob persona (yet still wearing bowling shirts emblazoned with the number 37 as a nod to his legion of devoted fans). The intended audience for Catch and Release may not be entirely familiar with Smith’s work, and his winning performance here could potentially earn him some new fans. (Old fans won’t be surprised to see his charm and wit in full effect.) The real discovery, though, is Timothy Olyphant. The actor is frequently cast as angry, edgy tough guys in films like Go and The Girl Next Door. With this film, he shows that he has a broader range than that. And because he’s an atypical choice for this kind of role, it adds much-needed unpredictability to the Fritz character.
My sole complaint with the film is that it occasionally seems to have skipped over certain bits of exposition. Once in a while, something will happen that seems like it came out of nowhere. There have been rumors of a much longer cut of the movie (it now runs at about 1:50). If so, the stuff on the cutting room floor probably fills in the little gaps. Thank heaven for deleted scenes on DVDs.
This is not a crippling problem because Catch and Release has enough strong points to easily make it worth seeing. Perhaps strongest among them is the thoughtful idea presented at the end. Gray eventually figures out that while her fiancé may not have been everything he seemed, it was not all in a bad way. And that realization allows her to decide how she wants to spend the rest of her own life.
( out of four)
Catch and Release is rated PG-13 for sexual content, language and some drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.
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