Grief never looked as good as it does on Jennifer Garner in Catch and Release, the first entry in a new subgenre: the zero-hankie tearjerker.
Catch comes armed with a respectable cache of talent: Garner’s five-year tour-of-duty on television’s Alias remains one of the most remarkable demonstrations of versatility in any medium. And director Susannah Grant, in her directorial debt, has taken potentially preachy topics like single parenthood and sisterly rivalry and spun them into the highly respectable screenplays for Erin Brockovich and In Her Shoes, respectively. But maybe she had directors Steven Soderbergh and Curtis Hanson to thank for the end result of those efforts, since, left to her own devices, Catch devolves into mere chick flick territory.
Garner is Gray Wheeler, not yet a wife, not quite a widow. Let me explain: Catch opens on what should have been Gray’s wedding day. Only her fiancé, Grady, has died in an unspecified extreme-sporting accident days before their nuptials, and instead of a wedding, their family and friends have instead gathered for Grady’s funeral.
Catch follows Gray’s journey to pick up the pieces and get on with her life, which, in the context of this film, must start immediately and can only be achieved by finding a new man by the end of the film. (Perhaps Jane Austen would have done the same thing if Mr. Darcy died in a freak horse-riding accident before marrying Elizabeth Bennett.) Fortunately, she has a trio of men to choose from: Grady’s three best friends. There are fellow Boulder, Colorado, residents Sam (Kevin Smith) and Dennis (Sam Jaeger), whose house she moves into, as well as the womanizing Fritz (Tim Olyphant), who has opted for an extended leave from his house in Malibu. As part of an alarming amount of missing details, it is never made known how far back Dennis, Grady and Sam went, and if Fritz dates as far back to the others or not. For that matter, Grant never tells us how Grady and Gray met, or whether their relationship was smooth sailing or faced troubled waters. (But we do see a lot of Boulder, and that city sure does look easy to fall in love with.)
What does matter is this: Grady was not the man Gray thought he was. He had a private savings account from which he sent monthly payments to a massage therapist named Maureen (Juliette Lewis) in Los Angeles to care for a son he had from an ongoing affair. Grant seems to work overtime in Catch to deconstruct Grady from perfect suitor to lying betrayer, all the easier to make it for Gray to move on and fall in love. In fact, Grant devotes more attention to Grady than any of her living characters. For instance, we never learn exactly what Gray does. And does she have any girlfriends or family members? None of them were present at Grady’s funeral, which — remember — was to have been Gray’s wedding day.
Catch boils down to a simple question. Who will Gray hook up with? She instantly hates Fritz, who we first meet having anonymous sex with a caterer during Grady’s funeral, so naturally hate will give way to love. But is she meant to be with him, or Dennis, who has carried a torch for Gray for years? Sam doesn’t really fit into the equation, as he is the only portly cast member among beauties. Besides, even when an abortive suicide attempt lands him in the hospital, he is immediately released and his depression is never again addressed.
The cast here, however, is never a part of the problem. Garner is terrific — plucky, heartbreaking, confused, pious in all the right moments. Catch never degenerates into melodrama between Gray and Maureen, as one would expect, because Maureen never wronged Gray; only Grady has, so everyone treats each other maturely. Olyphant remains underrated as a leading man — he can be sleazy and smoldering in a single glance, and easily holds his own with Garner. Fritz means well, but will he prove to be nothing more than a creature of habit? Or does Gray really belong with Dennis? I wish Grant had given Jaeger a little more to work with than looking doe-eyed and wounded. This could have been a great breakout role for him.
The performer who does steal every one of her scenes is the exquisite Fiona Shaw as Grady’s bereaved mother. What a searing job she does in her few scenes as she tries to push Gray away and reject the idea that she has an illegitimate grandson. Pay attention to the deceptively simple shrug of her shoulders she gives in her final scene. It communicates volumes about her character’s background, state of mind and emotional resolve.
I only wish Grant would have done the same with the rest of her film.