Catch and Release is the kind of film that has a lot going for it, but fails because some of the choices in cast and direction don't allow for it to succeed. It opens and closes well, but lacks purpose for much of the second act. It introduces a lot of story points that could be interesting, but the film doesn't highlight which ones we should be paying attention to, leaving us confused about what is important and what isn't. And Jennifer Garner plays the lead, a mourning widow named Gray.
For the first bit of the film, I actually thought that Garner might have finally found a role that she could excel in. She opens up fairly emotional, and given that her husband-to-be recently passed away, that seemed like an appropriate reaction. But as the film progresses, she shows us that this small burst of emotion was too much to maintain, and the rest feels forced and unnatural. Her character is also very inconsistent, changing demeanor within scenes at times, but given the tragedy I figured that was intentional and not Garner's fault.
Anyway, after the funeral, we start to get into the meat of the story, something that is far tougher and gristly than it should be. Gray lives with a trio of men, all of whom were her fiance's friend. The first is Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), a commercial director from Los Angeles who isn't technically living with them, but more overstaying his welcome. There's also Dennis, a man who has nothing to define him as a character, and Sam (Kevin Smith), who plays the funny man, presumably because he's played by Kevin Smith, a funny man in real life.
Also joining the story is a woman named Maureen (Juliette Lewis), whom we learn had an affair with the deceased and has secretly been getting checks for child support. The child is legally entitled to the money he left behind, assuming a DNA test proves that it was his son, although Gray cares more about the infidelity than the money, as is to be expected. These characters all spend a great deal of time together, doing nothing of importance for the next hour or so, leading up to a somehow satisfying conclusion.
I'm not sure how it works. Somehow, some way, all of this meandering allows us to get to know these characters and we understand their relationships with each other, and when it's finally time to wrap up, it's a somewhat powerful conclusion. There are a couple of touching moments scattered throughout the overlong middle that almost make it worthwhile, and once the finale comes, we realize that we do care, and that the time hasn't been completely wasted.
It really sneaks up on you, and while exactly the most touching of conclusions, it's kind of neat to have it all wrap up nicely. It's logical, sweet, and the type of feel-good ending that the movie's overall tone tried to avoid for as long as it could. It's like the inevitable had to come, and the middle was as long and boring as it could be as a stall tactic. "Let's drag this out as long as we can," it says, "and then we'll make them feel satisfied when we finally finish." It worked, I suppose.
There were a couple of subplots that really didn't connect, though. For instance, Dennis, the plain guy, apparently has a crush on Gray for the entirety of the film -- while she's starting to fall for Fritz, who returns the favor. But Dennis doesn't let us, let alone Gray, know this until close to the end, and then the whole subplot is wrapped up like that. Dennis has nothing to define him as a character up until that point, and then he reveals this, and we're supposed to care, apparently, even though the Gray/Fritz pairing had been working out just fine.
And then there's the one involving the deceased's mother (Fiona Shaw), who shows up intermittently just to make everyone else unhappy. And then her character changes completely for seemingly no reason. She had no real reason to be there except to keep the tone downtrodden -- which, I'd like to point out, is in direct opposition to the reason Kevin Smith was in the film, which was to liven things up. It's an uneasy balance that doesn't quite work out.
In fact, Kevin Smith was the only one in the film that I really liked. He livens things up, and his demeanor is in such stark contrast to everyone else's that I gravitated toward him. He lifts things up from the depressed state that everyone else is in -- even when they're supposed to be "happy" -- that you can't help but want to see him in every scene. And he even gets a nice little subplot with Maureen and her child, which is sweet enough in its own right, especially after an earlier event in the film where he hits the lowest of lows.
As I write, I start to like Catch and Release more and more. I wasn't terribly pleased while I was watching it, and I still think that the second act was overlong and overloaded, leading to confusion regarding what's important and what isn't, but since the beginning and ending are quite strong, it left a good impression in my mind. And thinking back on all the little moments that worked -- I think they overpowered the ones that didn't. It's not really a good film, and I'm feeling very mixed on it, but it does enough right to maybe, just maybe, be worth your time.