Throw it back

Catch and Release

Don’t be bored by me because I’m beautiful.

Don’t be bored by me because I’m beautiful.

Rated 2.0

To be an unimpressed male reviewer of Catch and Release is to ask for trouble, but here goes. The movie was written by Susannah Grant, whose script for Erin Brockovich earned her an Oscar nomination, and it makes the case that not since Callie Khouri won that award for writing Thelma & Louise in 1991 has a screenwriter been so embarrassingly grade-inflated just for being female. We should know better by now how detrimental such patronizing, not-bad-for-a-girl approval from the fusty Hollywood establishment can be. Just because Grant’s characters exist in two dimensions instead of the usual one, let’s not further demean anyone by calling them a revelation of perspective. Worse, Catch and Release is Grant’s directorial debut, and reason enough that she shouldn’t quit her day job, except of course for the increasingly self-evident reasons that maybe she should.

Admittedly, it feels a little silly even bothering to say so. Is leveling these complaints just a way, to borrow Grant’s own overburdened fishing metaphor, of taking the bait? Could a truly feminist, non-patronizing romantic dramedy even exist today, or ever? Could this movie even come close? It’s just a Jennifer Garner vehicle, for Christ’s sake!

She’s looking great, by the way—with arms ropy, eyes bright and alert, dimples absolutely precious—as the physical embodiment of how you’d like to seem while having your romantic and innocuously tragic life scored by poignant indie-pop. Garner plays Gray Wheeler, a Boulder, Colo., woman coping with the sudden death of her fiancé, just prior to their marriage, and reluctantly discovering his unpleasant secrets. She pouts, she musters a few fetching smiles, she suffers and bears up, beautifully. Also, she’s a woman for whom grieving the man apparently means moving in with his buddies: Dennis (Sam Jaeger), who’s secretly been crushing on her for six years; Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), who’s temporarily up from L.A. to pay respects and work on his check-me-out charisma; and Sam (Kevin Smith), who calls women “man” and men “sir,” and has been assigned by the writer-director to provide comic relief.

So, even without a husband, Gray finds herself in the company of men. She mentions girlfriends, but none seem ever to be on hand. In fact, the only significant women in Gray’s life are her chilly would-be mother-in-law (Fiona Shaw), who wants the family-heirloom engagement ring back, and a visiting hippie-ditzy tramp named Maureen (Juliette Lewis), to whom her fiancé had been sending thousands of dollars a month—presumably, Gray learns, because he fathered the woman’s young child.

Those characters, to their performers’ credit, at least avoid stagnation. It’s consistent with Grant’s goals: There’s a message in Catch and Release about the various ways in which people, or at least movie characters, can surprise you. Like your impulsively disowning mother-in-law or your cheating fiancé, or his empathetic other woman, or his sleazy pal who copes at first by screwing the occasional funeral caterer but turns out to be into you and to have a swanky Malibu beachfront spread in which he’s willing to make a supportive home with you.

Right. Grant’s flabby script, with its many scenes that fuss around for a while before achieving their predictable intentions, trades heavily in the sudden dramatics of overheard conversations. But not, suffice to say, in a Shakespeare sort of way. Catch and Release squanders its alleged ambition to tackle romantic grief with grace. Its female solace seems cheaply won, and its male-psyche insight conveniently abbreviated. As, for instance, when Maureen reckons herself an attractive fling simply because she contrasts Gray’s perfection: “He was just excited not to have to be on his best behavior.” Or when Sam, otherwise a decent enough guy, takes a phone message from Dennis’ date by scribbling only his own harsh, impulsive judgments of the caller: “Not smart. Not funny.” Just when these characters seem inclined to behave like real people, the movie demands otherwise.

And what does it say when merely the presence of Kevin Smith somehow elevates the material? Well, it doesn’t say, “You go, girl.” Dutifully chipping away at the angst and canned sexual tension with fat-dude hilarity, Smith also manages an easygoing sincerity that puts fellow performers to shame. He lets some air into Grant’s stuffy structure, not to mention her prosaic dialogue. His loyalists likely will wince to think he’s wound up in a high-minded chick flick. If only.