The first strike against Catch and Release is that it concerns itself with a romance between grown people called Gray and Fritz, names that should exist only if you feel some twisted need to make up backstories for the models in your L.L. Bean catalog. The second strike is that, despite being set in pristine Colorado and featuring mostly characters who are decent in their way, Fritz is played by Timothy Olyphant, who always comes across like the guy who first tempts “hayseed Axl” when he gets off the bus to start the “Welcome to the Jungle” video. Olyphant has frequently and quite convincingly played sleazy types, and here he enters into a passionate relationship with Gray (Jennifer Garner) after her fiancé, Grady, a friend of his, dies. On paper, this role calls for someone much more likable than Olyphant if it’s going to be brought off.
The third strike, judging from the preview, would be everything else.
But miraculously, despite its numerous red flags, Catch and Release more or less lives up to its title. Sure, it hooks you in a way that makes you bleed all over and scream for mercy, and there are moments when you feel sure the encounter will leave you dead, but as the credits roll, you walk away feeling mostly unscathed and relieved.
Don’t get me wrong, the movie fails to achieve its most basic goal, which is romantic resonance. It cheaply lessens the creepiness of the hey-the-body’s-not-cold-yet love affair by making the dead guy less sympathetic — we learn early on that the recently deceased Grady had been secretly sending money to a masseuse in Los Angeles (Juliette Lewis), and may have had a child with her after he and Gray were already dating. As for Olyphant, he’s better than I expected he would be, but he’s helpless to change the fact that Fritz is a character whose idea of enhancing postcoital bliss is drawing a dragon on Gray’s hand with a Sharpie. Gross. And given the sad premise, Catch and Release doesn’t go for the pathos jugular quite like it might have. I suppose it makes a couple of half-hearted attempts. Had it been set in the Rust Belt, though — or hell, even Colorado sometime other than dazzling summer — it might have featured some appropriately depressing moments, some real grief, but there’s no room for that in the movie’s sun-dappled, mountain-shaded heart.
Still, because the silly sum of the project is made from some worthwhile parts, the experience is much less agonizing than it initially promises to be. You’re surprised to find your bile simmering instead of boiling because there are just enough good elements to keep things watchable. If you want a comfortably familiar sitcom, there’s the character of Sam, a close friend of Grady’s played by Kevin Smith. Listening to him crack wise for the movie’s first 20 minutes (“What are you, an osteopath?”) is like stumbling on a long-lost audition reel for the role of Chandler Bing. Eventually, the big bearded lug settles into an enjoyable comfort zone, only stumbling in a moment or two when the script asks him to actually emote.
Did you enjoy Kicking and Screaming (the real one, not the Will Ferrell one)? I did. A lot. And like Noah Baumbach’s debut, Catch and Release features a small group of mostly aimless, emotionally immature young men sharing a house. Perhaps you can’t get enough of ditzy, New-Agey stereotypes. Here, Juliette Lewis somehow breathes fresh(ish) life into that old caricature. Like The Big Chill, the movie’s action is set in motion by a dead person who we never really see (outside a blurry photo or two). I was half hoping the credits would acknowledge the similarity and list Kevin Costner as Grady, but no luck. If you want A River Runs Through It, well, a river runs right through this puppy.
Perhaps the most admirable aspect of the movie is that it doesn’t come off as a shameless vehicle to showcase Garner. Writer and first-time feature director Susannah Grant, who penned In Her Shoes and Erin Brockovich, among others, has her heart in the right place. She clearly wants the story to function as an ensemble piece, despite the unavoidable tendency of Garner’s cheekbones to steal scenes. And when Garner is the focus, she’s not bad, a bit too doe-eyed and pouty at rest (though that’s just how God made her) but convincingly naturalistic when she springs into action.
I’m a sucker for movies that end with a character hitting the road for some better, or at least significantly different, life. I saw Good Will Hunting multiple times in the theater partly just to reach that last shot of him beginning his cross-country drive to the strains of Elliott Smith. And sure, when Gray reaches for her seatbelt near the end of Catch and Release, it’s only for a relatively short trip set to one of my least favorite Death Cab for Cutie songs, but I have to admit, the freedom and hopefulness of the moment got to me on some minor level. The movie couldn’t end there, though, because then it would miss one last remix opportunity — a Shawshank-like ending on a beach.
In the end, neither these cinematic allusions (some of which I freely admit stretching to find) nor the moments of wider cast chemistry can keep Catch and Release from being what it is: a date movie. But if you need a mainstream date movie and you normally dread them, this is the pick. You’ll survive. And if that sounds like half-hearted praise, then you haven’t seen The Break-Up, Failure to Launch, or Just Like Heaven. If you have seen them, then you know that “you’ll survive” is a rave.
John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s an editor at Harper Perennial and a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.
Catch and Release / John Williams
Film Reviews | January 28, 2007 | Comments ()