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Catch and Release

Neither as bad as its early buzz and January berth would suggest nor as good as it should have been, "Catch and Release" is a so-so romantic dramedy about a woman (Jennifer Garner) finding love in the wake of her fiance's accidental death.

Gray - Jennifer Garner Fritz - Timothy Olyphant Dennis - Sam Jaeger Sam - Kevin Smith Maureen - Juliette Lewis Mattie - Joshua Friesen Mrs. Douglas - Fiona Shaw

Neither as bad as its early buzz and January berth would suggest nor as good as it should have been, “Catch and Release” is a so-so romantic dramedy about a woman (Jennifer Garner) finding love in the wake of her fiance’s accidental death. True to its name, largely forgettable item should register as a brief theatrical catch –playing to limited, femme-driven B.O. — before its hastened release on DVD racks.

The helming debut of scribe Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”), who also penned it, “Catch and Release” was originally slated for an April 2006 release. But Sony, seeking to lighten its marketing load (Daily Variety, Jan. 12, 2006), opted for a nine-month postponement.

Yet despite the negative implications of its delay, “Catch and Release” isn’t wholly irredeemable. Garner is characteristically engaging as Gray Wheeler, the Boulder, Colo.-based bride whose wedding turns into a funeral when her b.f. Grady perishes during a pre-marital boating accident (alluded to only obliquely).

A maudlin intro sequence at the reception sets up key characters including the devastated Gray, Grady’s weepy mother (Fiona Shaw), and the would-be groomsmen: buffoonish Sam (Kevin Smith channeling Jack Black), sincere Dennis (Sam Jaeger) and the rakish Fritz (“Deadwood’s” Timothy Olyphant), who deals with his grief by seducing the caterer.

Unable to afford the house she and Grady had rented, Gray moves in with Sam and Dennis, who are also lodging Fritz. While this plot point accelerates the story, it begs the question: Why doesn’t Gray have girlfriends or family of her own? It’s inconceivable that a woman would undergo such a catastrophic loss without so much as a call from her mother, let alone her bridesmaids.

Once ensconced with the guys, Gray bonds with Sam and Dennis, each of whom manifests his grief differently: the former gorging himself on food and vodka, the latter throwing himself into the construction of a memorial “Peace Garden.” Though Gray initially loathes the self-centered playboy Fritz (having overheard his tryst with the caterer) surprising events — and his hitherto untapped sensitivity — will bring them together.

It’s giving little away to say that Gray discovers Grady had a secret bank account from which he made regular payments to a California massage therapist named Maureen (Juliette Lewis), who had borne his son (Joshua Friesen). Stung by that revelation (and by Maureen’s description of her as “perfect”), Gray resolves to be a little more edgy. She begins a clandestine affair with Fritz that blossoms into something unexpected. And she overcomes her resistance to the ditsy Maureen and her oh-so precious son.

One of the troubles with “Catch and Release” is that it deals with serious issues — sudden death, grief, infidelity, deception — in a fairly lighthearted way. What makes that worse is that there are a few moments when the film actually approaches some kind of emotional or dramatic truth. Olyphant and Garner generate real sparks, and their should-we-or-shouldn’t-we attraction feels authentic.

Ditto the Sam-Dennis friendship in which men unable to articulate their emotions resort to shows of physical strength. Alternatively, several running gags grow tedious.

If “Catch and Release” was a complete loss, its flaws wouldn’t be as glaring. Grant can write and shows promise as a director, but she’s not served by her material or its serio-comic tone here.

There’s no problem with her cast, however, although Lewis could have taken her ditsy persona down a notch; she’s like the choral voice that threatens to drown out the others. Garner won’t lose any fans, and Olyphant clearly has a bright future.

Tech elements are fine across the board. There’s a hip soundtrack including songs from the Lemonheads and Foo Fighters, but it sometimes feels like the songs are turned up when the story starts to falter.

Catch and Release

Production: A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures/Relativity Media presentation of a Jenno Topping production. Produced by Topping. Executive producers, B. Casey Grant, Ryan Cavanaugh, Lynwood Spinks. Directed, written by Susannah Grant.

Crew: Camera (color), John Lindley; editor, Anne V. Coates; music, BT and Tommy Stinson; production designer, Brent Thomas; art director, Shannon Grover; set decorator, Lesley Beale; costume designer, Tish Monaghan; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/ DTS), Larry Sutton; assistant director, David Sardi; casting, Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood, Jennifer Smith. Reviewed at the Grove, Los Angeles, Jan. 23, 2007. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 110 MIN.

With: Gray - Jennifer Garner Fritz - Timothy Olyphant Dennis - Sam Jaeger Sam - Kevin Smith Maureen - Juliette Lewis Mattie - Joshua Friesen Mrs. Douglas - Fiona Shaw

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