'Catch and Release': No Bait on the Hook

Timothy Olyphant and Jennifer Garner in a romantic comedy that's not sure what it wants to be.
Timothy Olyphant and Jennifer Garner in a romantic comedy that's not sure what it wants to be. (By Doug Curran -- Columbia Pictures Via Associated Press)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 26, 2007

Caught dead center in the confused effort "Catch and Release" is Jennifer Garner, playing a young woman who ends up attending the funeral of her fiance on what would have been their wedding day. Throughout this story -- which teeter-totters between traditional rom-com and semi-downer ensemble piece -- Garner retains a permanent grimace, as if persuasive acting can be achieved by contorting cheek muscles and pouting lips. It's not just depressing to watch her, it's tiring. We want to tell her to relax -- for our own relief.

Moviegoers who have come to see Garner get down and flirty, perhaps remembering her sweet turn in 2004's "13 Going on 30," will soon find themselves shifting in their seats. By the time she lightens up, well, the credits aren't far away.

Writer-turned-director Susannah Grant -- she scripted "Erin Brockovich" -- apparently delayed the final shooting schedule for a year to accommodate Garner's final season on TV's "Alias" and the birth of the actress's child. Clearly, Grant should have used the lag time for creative troubleshooting.

As Garner's Gray Wheeler discovers shady things about her dead fiance's romantic past, she seems headed for a restorative romance with one of his friends. No sooner have we settled in for this development when another, seemingly more appropriate, suitor rears his head. We become seriously lost as to which romance we are supposed to be rooting for, as if Grant changed her mind, too, but couldn't be bothered to go back and re-adapt the first half of the movie.

Then there's the stylistic approach: On one hand, "Catch" slavishly follows traditional romancers such as "My Best Friend's Wedding," in which Mr. Real turns out to be Mr. Unexpected. But on the other, it wants to enjoy the indie-movie structure of "Garden State" and feature offbeat characters in a cluster of overlapping stories -- all to the incessant beat of pop songs on the soundtrack.

Unfortunately for the latter approach, none of Grant's supporting characters is as quirkily engaging as she wants them to be. Juliette Lewis, "Deadwood" star Timothy Olyphant and "Clerks" filmmaker Kevin Smith are as handicapped by their own limitations as by what's on their script pages. Olyphant is the strongest performer here, but he's entirely misplaced, an estimable actor caught in a thankless, frilly role. Smith is only fitfully funny as he spends most of the movie stuffing his face and running his well-known New Jersey-bred improv motors. And Lewis simply reprises the interplanetary weirdness she has used ever since she batted eyes at Robert De Niro in 1991's "Cape Fear." None of them can make up for the movie's conceptual problems.

Which brings us back to the movie's leading lady. The engaging, almost giddy innocence she brought to "13 Going on 30" and the super-agent vitality she brought to "Alias" are conspicuously absent here -- in large part because Grant's script keeps her character fettered by bereavement. It all conspires to keep her from being the lovable center of the story. Audiences come to romantic stories -- bubbly, bittersweet or even dark -- to see the resurgence that love brings to the soul. But as directed by Grant, Garner never gets the chance to enjoy that transformation.

Perkier actresses from the rom-com corner -- the Julias, Camerons and Drews -- surely would have used their power or cachet to insist on some crucial rewrites that would give the character a more engaging quality throughout the film. And when Grant does try to imbue Garner with spark -- in one scene the actress slurs a drunken rendition of "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" -- her efforts feel forced or hackneyed. As a result, Garner simply disappears into the supporting pack in a film that doesn't know if it's rom-coming or going.

Catch and Release (111 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for profanity and sexual situations.

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