Catch and Release (review)

Love’s Labors Lost, and Found Again

When romantic dramedies — or worse, romantic comedies — fail, and most do, by foisting on us people we couldn’t care less about doing things too stupid to explain away even by excusing them as the product of an overdose of hormones, they end up condemning entire genders with their idiocies. When the characters aren’t genuine, they become stock — they become stand-ins that say, Look how histrionic all women are! or Look how stupid all men are!

That is never a problem with Catch and Release, because — wonder of wonders — here’s a romantic dramedy that gets it exactly right, gives us people who live and breathe and are as absolutely convincingly real as people you know. You want to know these people, want to spend more time with them and share their ups and down with them… and when there come moments in the film in which you’re tempted to say, Wait a minute, people wouldn’t do that, you almost instantly dismiss the thought again. Because while “people” — those generic stock people that end up representing everybody in most examples of the genre — might not do that, a “person” certainly might, a real person with real quirks who makes real mistakes or gives in to poor judgment sometimes.
It’s easy to accept that the average woman might not, for instance, fall in love so quickly again after losing her fiancé in a tragic accident, but it’s not so easy to accept that Gray Wheeler might not. When we meet her, she is desperately trying to hold back tears at the funeral of Grady, whom she was meant to be marrying that very day, and she’s not doing a very good job of it. Jennifer Garner (13 Going on 30, Alias) plays Gray with a delicate balance of pathos and humor, which is obvious from the get-go: Her exasperated, heartbreaking escape from the well-meaning but excruciating condolences of Grady’s friends and family leads instantly into a moment of dark comedy, as the bathroom in which she’s hiding (in the shower, behind the closed shower curtain, a dark, comforting refuge) becomes the retreat for a couple’s boisterous quickie. We witness the scene as Garner does, audio only, and the elaborate stew of emotions that cross her face as she listens — from disbelief to amusement to disgust — is a foreshadowing of the complicated emotion palette of the film to come.

For what transpires is: Gray’s heartache is compounded as, in the aftermath of Grady’s death, she unwittingly uncovers secrets he kept from her… and as she surprises herself by falling for one of his trio of best pals (Kevin Smith: Daredevil, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back; Timothy Olyphant: A Man Apart, Dreamcatcher; and Sam Jaeger: Hart’s War, Behind Enemy Lines). In a less adroitly handled story, criticism of that new romance as a plot twist might be valid, but in one that approximates real life? Hell, fate throws all sorts of strange stuff our way, don’t it? If Catch and Release didn’t hit all the right notes of grief and anger, discovery and growth that comes with losing someone you love and learning how to move on, it would feel awkward. But it works.

Erin Brockovich screenwriter Susannah Grant is making her directorial debut here, and it’s an auspicious one: this is a beautifully crafted film in all respects. The script, Grant’s own, is witty and wise, not reducible to catchphrases or pithy bon mots but twinging with pain and hope. And she creates an aching loveliness of psychic empty space: We never meet Grady as a character, and he never appears, not even in a photograph, yet he is still a palpable presence, a tangible absence at the center of all the people who love him and miss him. Even something seemingly as prosaic as the casting is spot on: Garner has never been better, but who’d have thunk that Kevin Smith could shuck the wiseacre act and be so sweetly funny? He almost steals the movie, and would, except for the presence of Timothy Olyphant, who is positively incandescent in a performance that, in all right movie realms, would finally make him the star he deserves to be. As Grady’s requisite cad friend — he’s one who makes a surprise visit to Gray’s hiding place in that opening scene, of course — he turns out to be a different man than Gray had imagined.

You probably won’t be greatly surprised by how everything resolves itself in the end — this is a Hollywood film, after all, and unhappy endings are not allowed. But what is surprising is how enrapturing it all is nevertheless.

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