While I would never call screenwriter Susannah Grant’s (In Her Shoes) directorial debut, Catch and Release, a good movie, neither did I find it to be quite as unmitigated a disaster as it’s been painted—or as its troubled release history suggests (pulled trailers, rumors of a three-hour original cut, a pushed-back release date). Oh, it’s a bit of a mess—it goes off in about 36 directions at one time, and Grant’s handling of her actors often leaves something to be desired—but it’s a genial affair that passes the time pretty painlessly.
Apart from the ghastly decision to have Timothy Olyphant (The Girl Next Door) play every emotion with a smirky smile, the primary problem is almost admirable: Grant simply tries to do too much and to be too nice in the bargain. She obviously wanted to stretch the boundaries of that most disdained genre, the romantic comedy, to turn it into something a little weightier than “chick flick” fluff. Unfortunately, what she ended up with is an awkward, thinly spread hybrid—a not very funny comedy, a not very deep drama and a patently transparent and not very involving romance. What sets it apart from other such attempts, like Peyton Reed’s The Break-Up (2006), is a pleasant lack of snarkiness. That, however, is a double-edged sword, because in the world of Grant’s film everyone is ultimately too good to be believable.
The basic idea is solid enough for the genre. Gray Wheeler’s (Jennifer Garner) fiance dies in an accident just before their wedding, and as the film opens we find her attending his funeral—an ordeal made even worse by her late boyfriend’s best friend, Fritz (Olyphant), having a quick tryst with the caterer (Sonja Bennett, The Fog) in the bathroom where Gray is hiding in the tub. (Why she didn’t just lock herself in the bathroom rather than hide in the tub is never addressed, but my guess is that it would have prevented this variant on the “meet cute” setup.) It doesn’t help that she and Fritz can’t stand each other in the first place (yes, we all know where this is going).
Finding she can’t afford the house she lives in, she takes up residency with her fiance’s friends—Dennis (Sam Jaegar, Lucky Number Slevin), who is hopelessly in love with her, and Sam (Kevin Smith), a likable slob. Naturally, Fritz flops there, too. It’s not long before she finds out that her betrothed not only had a ditsy and obvious girlfriend (Juliette Lewis) on the side, but also fathered a child by her. Workable enough as a premise, but Grant overloads it all with tangential subplots that don’t really go anywhere and finally feel unrealistically resolved. This last may be the result of cuts made to get the film down to a tractable length, but that’s no excuse, since the fault should have been corrected in the scripting stages.
Even at its current 124-minute running time, Catch and Release is too long by a good 20 minutes—especially because we know early on where the central Gray-Fritz storyline is heading. Then too, their romance just isn’t very interesting—and not simply because of Olyphant’s unnerving perpetual grin. It’s deeper than that: The characters aren’t especially engaging. Worse, they’re almost never funny. Taking a giant leap backwards, Grant reverts to the days of pre-screwball comedy (in other words, pre-1934) where the romantic leads are stiffs surrounded by quirky characters who handle the comedy. As a result, nearly all the limited laughs come from the supporting players—mostly from Kevin Smith.
This outdated approach might have worked if the comedy was better. As it stands, apart from attempts at making Smith’s character deeper (why not a pointless suicide bid to goose the drama?), there’s not much there. Smith’s character is essentially a two-joke creation: His job is to crib famous quotes to festoon tea boxes for the Celestial Seasons company, so he’s never at a loss for a “meaningful” quote in any situation, and he’s so desperate to keep up his impressive bulk that he eats constantly. The first is funny once or twice, but it wears thin. The latter isn’t funny the first time. Smith manages to keep the character barely afloat, but only on the strength of his own personality. Still, he’s the most enjoyable aspect of a film that’s at best a mildly diverting effort that wants to be more than it is. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, language and some drug use.