A film review by Craig J. Koban
CATCH AND RELEASE
2007, PG-13, 111 mins.
Gray: Jennifer Garner /
Fritz: Timothy Olyphant /
Maureen: Juliette Lewis /
Sam: Kevin Smith /
Mrs. Douglas: Fiona Shaw /
Dennis: Sam Jaeger /
Persephone: Georgia Craig /
Mattie: Joshua Friesen Written and directed by Susannah Grant
Gray: Jennifer Garner / Fritz: Timothy Olyphant / Maureen: Juliette Lewis / Sam: Kevin Smith / Mrs. Douglas: Fiona Shaw / Dennis: Sam Jaeger / Persephone: Georgia Craig / Mattie: Joshua Friesen
Written and directed by Susannah Grant
CATCH AND RELEASE begins in an atypical fashion for most romantic dramadies. Instead of the film concluding with the wedding of two starry eyed lovers, the film begins with a wedding.
The catch here is that the bride is stood up before the trip alter by her husband's tragic death. Now having to turn her dream nuptials into a funeral for family and friends, the young widow must pull herself up and pick up the pieces of her life in order to gain perspective and move forward. However, when she discovers that her would-be hubby may not have been who she always thought he was, then her self-efficacy takes a nose dive and she is faced with the burden of losing her fiancé that also may have been unfaithful. Talk about a double threat to happiness!
CATCH AND RELEASE – the directorial debut for writer/director Susannah Grant - is neither too sappy and sugarcoated to be a squeaky clean comedy or too deep and depressing to be a searing drama. Instead, like some of the best films of this genre, it manages to find that necessary happy medium between the two. It also involves what I yearn for in good and decent romantic dramadies: good and decent people that we can invest our interest in. If you don’t care for the personas, then you simply won’t give a hoot about their well being and happiness.
When films lack characters that we can have a rooting interest in, then they are sunk and D.O.A.. Films like last year’s wretched FAILURE TO LAUNCH come to mind where we are seemingly forced to love a rich, thirty-something man that is a lazy SOB and lives at home and a conniving woman that whores herself out to men to make them fall in love with her so they will move out of mommy and daddy’s…then she dumps their asses. Question: why should anyone need or want to care about these losers?
CATCH AND RELEASE’s characters are much more grounded and – most importantly – likeable. They also occupy a script that hones in on their basic decency and makes us appreciate what they do for one another. The film is about lifelong friendship, finding new love in the wake of personal tragedy, and finding that always difficult inner strength to bypass deep, emotional pains when one’s past has been turned upside down on it’s head and truth has been compromised. The film is bittersweet and a bit more earnest than what I was expecting. It also has good performances that universally go for a sincere realism as opposed to broad laughs, the latter which often dominate these genre films. CATCH AND RELEASE has a satisfying amount of heartfelt chuckles and well as warm sentiment; it tugs on your heartstrings without yanking them right out of you. For those reasons, the film is a predictable – but nicely crafted and acted – romance.
Gray Wheeler (the effortlessly charming and adorable Jennifer Garner) is poised for the day of her life and then is dealt up a plateful of tragedy. Instead of proudly and happily walking down the aisle with her lifelong soul mate to be, she gets horrendous news that her fiancé has died and now is forced to bury him instead of marrying him. All of this occurs within the film’s first few minutes and Garner has a nice and delicate way of realistically conveying Gray’s sense of quiet despair and overall emotional numbness that anyone would experience with the abrupt death of a loved one. She is not one of those perpetually tearful widows that cries constantly and begs for company so she will not feel alone. Instead, her dealing with her fragile emotional state is exasperated by the fact that she is surrounded by her fiancé’s family (who were there for the wedding, now for the funeral). They remind her of him, and she curiously discovers that she simply does not want to spend one second with any of them, even if they convey honest sympathy. She’d rather be alone.
Having had enough of her in-laws patting her on the back and sheepishly offering her apologies, she escapes their suffocation of her and flees to the only place for a woman to have solace: the bathroom. She gets in the tub, closes the shower curtain behind her, lets out a tired, whimpering sigh, and just sits there to collect all of her conflicting thoughts. What she does not realize is that her solitude will soon be interrupted by Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), one of her dead husband’s friends. He manages to find the cute caterer of the funeral and lures her into the bathroom for a “quickie”. Thus begins one of the most awkward meet cutes of recent movie memory.
Interestingly, the film manages to follow the routine permutations of these types of romances (it’s ever-so-clear that Fritz and Gray will hook up eventually), but it also manages to take a discrete and subtle look at how all of the characters deal with the death of her husband in their own unique ways. For Fritz it’s banging the caterer (perhaps not quite such a selfish and uncaring move; as he admits later, it takes his mind off of the death of his buddy). Gray has two friends that were also close to her fiancé that help her deal with the tragedy. There is Sam (played by the wonderfully cast Kevin Smith) and Dennis (Sam Jaeger). Sam, a lovable lug of a human being, is a bit introverted in dealing with his feelings and even attempts suicide at one point, albeit rather feebly. Dennis, on the other hand, decides that the best way to deal with his own hurt is by putting himself in the position to help Gray as much as possible.
Fritz also throws himself into the fray by being a strong emotional anchor for Gray. Surprisingly, he is not the heel that the early scenes set him up to be. Yes, he likes to have sex at funerals, but deep down her cares for Gray and deeply feels her pain and sorrow. He does not try to force himself on her as a romantic interest; he is primarily focused on helping her through the grieving process first and foremost. When the two inevitably do exchange a passionate kiss, it’s not one of those coy and euphoric scenes that would occupy other witless romances. Instead, they question and try to forget about it out of guilt. In their minds, it's all rather awkward.
Despite the vast friendship circle that Gray is able to fall back on to, she hits a major roadblock to moving on when she discovers a nasty truth about her fallen love. By accident, she learns that her fiancé had been keeping some secrets from her, like the fact that he cheated and possibly fathered a child outside of their relationship with a spunky massage therapist (Juliette Lewis) while during a brief stay in Californian. He had also been sending her thousands of dollars a month in support. The evidence all points towards the kid being her fiancé’s son, but she does not have absolute proof. Eventually, she crosses paths with the therapist and arranges for DNA test to put her mind – and heart – at ease and rest for good.
There is no denying that CATCH AND RELEASE is formulaic right down to every discernable detail. Even less discriminating filmgoers should be able to connect all of its story dots together to get a good idea where everything is headed. Yet, the engine that drives the predicable plot is well oiled and the film moves at a fairly generous pace. Most importantly, the film has its head and heart in the right place. It does not play the premise for needless, farcical laughs, nor does it hammer home the sentiment and drama to the point where we find ourselves not enjoying the film. CATCH AND RELEASE is equal parts endearing and funny, not to mention that almost all of its characters are reasonably crafted as noble human beings. Even most fascinating is the fact that tertiary characters (like the massage therapist) are not one-dimensional plot points that only serve to fuel Gray’s hatred of her dead husband’s actions. Lewis’ character is not a gold digger that wants to cash in on Gray’s husband. She simply cares for her son’s well being and grows to care about Gray’s state as well. Overall, it’s kind of sweet and refreshing to see a film like this where no one is made into a stereotypical fiend.
Most of the performances in the film are nicely underplayed for the right effect. Timothy Olyphant has the right amount of charm and compassion as Fritz (he’s a affable guy that seems worthy of Gray’s eventual affection), as does Sam Jaeger as Dennis. The Emmy award winning Garner once again shows how she is capable of being such a radiant and pleasant screen presence, and she is able to effectively balance Gray’s pain and sorrow with a nice attention to subtle, light comedy. Garner is an actress of considerable range (she was the costume-clad vigilante in DAREDEVIL andELEKTRA, where she played a more-than-convincing action hero, and she was plucky and cute in 2004’s 13 GOING ON 30. CATCH AND RELEASE shows her ability to infuse believability in her tricky part. If she overplayed it too much then she would have drowned out the drama; if she was too sulky then she would have scared off the laughs.
Perhaps the biggest performance coup comes from Kevin Smith himself, who is more known behind the camera as the writer/director of his so-called View-Askewniverse films, such as both CLERKS entries and CHASING AMY. He has appeared in all of them, albeit as a mute Laurel Hardy figure. In CATCH AND RELEASE (his first major role) Smith commands – without surprise – most of the films biggest laughs with his sure-fire delivery and wit. Yet, he also plays this lug with an offbeat charm and sincerity. There is a moment where we see Sam in the hospital bed after his suicide attempt and he reveals his hidden pains about his friend’s untimely death. It’s arguably the film’s most strong and heartbreaking moments, and it’s revealing that it comes from a relative acting novice like Smith. He elevates his role beyond his obvious, jovial sidekick façade.
CATCH AND RELEASE is a romantic dramady whose plot is preordained pretty much through and through, but it nevertheless is a film that smoothes out its predictable edges with amiable performances, agreeable characters, and a tone that does not try too hard for big laughs and distressing sentiment. The film is kind of infectiously comfortable and warm, and I appreciated the way that it crafts characters that are urbane and big-hearted towards one another. The film is routine, but everything is hinged together well and is played for the right combination of pathos and laughs. It’s kind of GARDEN STATE-lite in the sense that it traverses through the emotional highs and lows of a person attempting to deal with personal tragedy by finding truth and closure. Because of that, CATCH AND RELEASE is - thankfully - a bit more of a soul-searching romance than its previews let on, which helps sustain the film above triteness.