Catch and Release (2007): Directing Debut of Susannah Grant, Oscar Nominated Scribe (Erin Brockovich)

The likable Jennifer Garner stars in the serio romantic comedy (or dramedy) “Catch and Release,” from Susannah Grant, Oscar-nominee for the “Erin Brockovich” screenplay, who makes a disappointingly lugubrious feature directorial debut that is neither humorous enough to qualify as comedy nor substantial enough to be taken as drama.
Both artistically and commercially, “Catch and Release” is a tweener that even devotees of the chick flick genre may not like.

The plot is rather simple: After the sudden death of her fianc, Gray Wheeler (Garner) finds comfort in the company of his friends: lighthearted and comic Sam (Kevin Smith), hyper-responsible Dennis (Sam Jaeger), and oddly, his old childhood buddy Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), an irresponsible playboy whom shed previously pegged as one of the least reliable people. As secrets about her supposedly perfect fianc emerge, Gray comes to see new sides of the man she thought she knew, and at the same time, finds herself drawn to the last man she ever expected to fall for.

Gray is one of those women who thought she had life all figured out: the perfect job, the perfect city (Boulder, Colorado), and Grady, the perfect fianc. However, rather unexpectedly, their wedding day turns out to be the day of Gradys funeral.

At the memorial, Gray is comforted by Gradys closest friends, the vastly cheerful Sam, and his opposite, the severe Dennis. When she leaves the reception for a few minutes, her privacy is interrupted by Fritz, Gradys buddy from L.A. Bursting in, thinking the room is empty, Fritz seduces the event caterer. Justifiably piqued, Gray blurts, How could he have been friends with you Youre everything he hated.

After the memorial, Gray realizes that she can no longer afford the house they used to rent. Sam and Dennis take her in, feeling responsibility to take care of their pals fianc, but to Grays chagrin, she finds that the boys have also offered a bed to Fritz.

As Gray closes Gradys business, she finds one big account of about $1 million he never knew existed. Unbeknownst to her, Grady was loaded. But that wasnt the only secret Grady kept from her. He was also sending the interest on that account, $3,000 a month, to be precise, to a mysterious woman in L.A. Embarking on a personal investigation, Gray pulls the details out of Fritz: Grady had an affair before he met Gray with a massage therapist named Maureen (Juliette Lewis). The result of that one night is a seven-year-old boy, Mattie. Gray is devastated to learn that Grady never trusted her enough to tell her about his son.

While Gray struggles to come to terms with this new information about her lover, relationships in the house become strained, as both Sam and Dennis take refuge in their vices to cope with the loss. Sam eats and drinks too much, missing time at work, while workaholic Dennis channels all of his energy into creating a Peace Garden for Grady.

Further complicating matters, though not enough to sustain our interest, Maureen shows up in Boulder with three-and-a-half-year-old Mattie, not the seven-year-old Gray expected. Piecing together the truth, Gray realizes that Grady slept with Maureen several times during their relationship.

Gray feels deceived, not only by Grady, who cheated on her, but also by Fritz, though she appreciates his effort to protect her from the news. In due time, despite the confusion and anger, the whole clique wants to get to know Gradys son, which only increases the size of the household.

Despite the fact that he kept such important secret from her–or maybe because he protected her from it so well–Gray begins eo experience stronger feelings for Fritz. What’s a lonely girl to do She begins a secret affair with him, creeping back into her own room before her roommates can catch her.

Bewildered and freaked out by her own conduct, Gray is left to sort out her desires and fears. As tensions between the house’s members grow, Dennis discloses his secret, that he has been in love with Gray. But since Gray doesnt return his affections, Dennis is left humiliated, with only his Peace Garden as source of comfort.

The behavior of all participants in this dramedy may be suitable for teenagers but not for the supposedly more mature thirtysomething crowd. Retrogressing to adolescence, Gray continues to keep her affair with Fritz a secret, while struggling to admit that he knew her fianc better than she did.

Last reel is neat and pat, with a series of mostly fake closures. Though the effect of Gradys death has not been easy, all those who loved him come to terms in their own ways, initiating a chain of life lessons. Sam begins a relationship with Maureen, who turns into an unlikely but stable influence. Proud of what hes built in the Peace Garden, Dennis finds solace, too. For her part, Gray learns to accept that Grady was not the perfect man, that Fritz is not just he self-centered playboy, and that life is not something to be planned, but needs to be experienced as it comes.

I may be in minority, but I have not been a fan of any of Grant’s screenplays, “Erin Brockovich,” elevated immensely by Julia Roberts’ charming, Oscar-winning performance, or the dreary “In Her Shoes” and “28 Days,” which were not helped by their lead actresses (Cameron Diaz in the former and Sandra Bullock in the later) or directors (the gifted Curtis Hanson made the former, but was defeated by the schmaltzy scenario).

In this picture, where shifting tone and balancing acts matter, Grant the writer-helmer works with Jennifer Garner, an OK actress (better on TV’s “Alias”) who nonethless lacks the natural charisma of Roberts, Diaz, and Bullock.

As film critics, we often complain, if only women were allowed to write and/or direct more movies, we would get fresher, more realistic, less clich tales. Nonetheless, judging by the predictable if busy plot and characters’ standard motivations, “Catch and Release” could have been easily directed by a male and you would not even know the difference.

Though dealing with trust, deception, and death, this film, like Grant’s previous work, is an old-fashioned yarn, centering on a femme protag that few viewers can relate to.

Every once in a while, we hope to defy the Gods and see a decent movie in January, a month in which the studios tend to release (no, dump)their worst pictures. But, alas, I’m afraid that “Catch and Release” will just reaffirm this long-prevailing pattern.