Co-star Kevin Smith ray of light, but can't brighten “Gray” day

Catch and Release

on January 26, 2007 by Mark Keizer
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As a general rule, romantic-comedy audiences, which is to say women, aren't happy unless they're sad, comforted in the acknowledgment of shared experience, dreaming of putting a warm and empathizing arm around the shoulder of a lovelorn heroine until Mr. Right fulfills his long-gestating desire for a kiss at the final fadeout. Catch and Release writer/director Susannah Grant understands this well, possibly too well. As a screenwriter, she's one of today's girl-power torchbearers, putting a coffee klatch of leading ladies through their emotional paces, including Sandra Bullock ( 28 Days ), Cameron Diaz ( In Her Shoes ) and Drew Barrymore ( Ever After ). In Grant's directing debut, it's Jennifer Garner's turn to stay strong between bouts of uncontrollable weeping, but she's ill-served by her passive character, a Colorado woman who uncovers some shocking secrets about her recently-deceased fiance.

Indeed, on the day Gray Wheeler (Garner) is to marry Grady, the flowers and food are instead employed to cater his memorial service. At the funeral she's comforted by his best friend Sam (Kevin Smith) and business partner Dennis (a bland Sam Jaeger). Also on hand is dreamy commercial director Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), fated to make an unconvincing turn from cad to super-duper guy. As Gray wraps up Grady's finances, she discovers he was sending $3,000 a month to a woman in Los Angeles. Fritz reluctantly fills in the details: While dating Gray, her ex-fiance fathered a child with Maureen (Juliette Lewis), a massage therapist he supports with a monthly check. Emotionally unmoored, Gray tries to get over the betrayal with the help of beautiful Colorado locations and a twangy alt-rock soundtrack.

With her monetary spigot mysteriously turned off, Maureen arrives in Boulder to investigate, young son in tow. A blonde tramp partial to skimpy, brightly-colored clothing, Maureen hails from LA, the film's go-to town for shallowness and chicks partial to realigning their chi. Initially we're meant to hate Maureen, but, in this world, everyone is basically decent, their bad deeds revealed to be misunderstandings or temporary conditions until all the facts are in.

Although the same ingredients have resulted in better movies, the problem here is Gray, a reactive person who waits for something worth reacting to, usually an indignity that requires a parting of Garner's pillowy lips. But Garner, the former TV superspy, has a severe face that won't let us believe she'd be vulnerable for very long. And she's not served well by Olyphant. His pearl-white teeth and jeans-commercial handsomeness project no heat, only hunky-ness. The best performance is by fellow director Smith ( Clerks ), who provides much-appreciated off-kilter energy, ad-libbing lines from Star Wars and cracking wise about “rockin' the Playstation.”

Grant shows a sympathetic eye to compliment her sympathetic ear, and someday she'll direct a nice movie. But, in her first try, she can't avoid the fate of many writers who decide it's their turn to direct. Like a girl falling for the wrong guy, Grant has fallen for her own inadequate material. Her overstuffed story feels under-explained, bits of slapstick involving Sam and Dennis are unwelcome stabs at humor, and too much is learned through conveniently overheard conversations. Unwilling to part with enough of her creation, the film is too long yet still comes across as a compromised cut, despite the best efforts of legendary editor Anne V. Coates ( Lawrence of Arabia ).

Near the end, Fritz catches Gray in her wedding dress, a fantasy she demurely laughs off as “a girl thing.” That may be true, but, as two uninteresting characters walk off into the undeserved sunset, it's clear that the ultimate “girl thing” would be a movie about a woman who doesn't require a man to be happy. It may not be on the romantic-comedy checklist, but maybe it's time to rip up the checklist and start a new one. Distributor: Sony
Cast: Jennifer Garner, Timothy Olyphant, Kevin Smith and Juliette Lewis
DirectorScreenwriter: Susannah Grant
Producer: Jenno Topping
Genre: Romantic comedy
Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, language and some drug use
Running time: 112 min.
Release date: January 26, 2007

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