Anyone who's ever fished and actually landed a fish knows the blank, glossy-eyed stare of hooked quarry. If Jennifer Garner and her Catch and Release cast mates could break the fourth wall and look down from the screen, that's the expression they'd see on the faces of audience members watching this lifeless romantic dramedy.
Comparing moviegoers to dying fish is grossly unfair since Garner is an attractive lure, especially during this fallow season at the multiplex when mediocre new releases are asked to compete with Oscar bait. Yet giving offense is okay if it dissuades anyone from handing over their hard-earned money to sit through writer-director Susannah Grant's dull feature.
The backdrop is the city of Boulder, home to the University of Colorado and legions of laid back outdoorsy types. One character describes Boulder as a "Patagonia Disneyland" in which everyone is happy. Maybe all the residents forgot to take their chirpy medicine or took a drug that blanches them of their color and energy instead. The sense of New Age romantic serendipity and Zen whimsy Grant strives to invoke just doesn't register.
Dark humor eludes her as well. Garner plays a woman named Gray whom we meet in an opening scene that has some promising verve. Gray's fiancé Grady has died suddenly (apparently while kayaking) and their wedding reception becomes a funereal gathering. It's the only segment that isn't enervating, as the intriguing contrast between black and white symbols of marriage and death is replaced by a shade of periwinkle that will unintentionally give audiences the blues.
Trying to avoid the condolences of relative strangers and the concerns of Grady's buddies Sam and Dennis (Kevin Smith and Sam Jaeger), Gray retreats to the bathroom. Seeking sanctuary in the tub, she hears an amorous encounter between a third friend, Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), and a voluble -- "Sock it to me!" -- caterer. The madcap intent of the scene doesn't come through and more importantly the relationship awkwardly kindled between Gray and Fritz isn't very plausible. In fact, not much in Catch and Release works the way it's supposed to.
Garner pouts her way through a role that calls for a lot of pouting. The fetching actress generally alternates between brooding and bubbly, and only the former is tapped into here as she's got a pitiful, hang-dog visage most of the time. Olyphant, fresh off playing Deadwood's lawman, makes his first major foray into romantic comedy territory and is miscast. Despite his bathroom dalliance, Fritz is a straight-arrow -- a Hollywood cinematographer with a Malibu beach house and a shell that isn't as hardened as he thinks. Olyphant -- terrific as the menacingly suave, enormously likeable pornographer in The Girl Next Door -- needs to play, if not the outright villain as he will do in the upcoming fourth installment in the Die Hard series, at least a character with an edge.
For the movie's comic center, Grant takes a chance on filmmaker Kevin Smith doing a Jack Black imitation. Sam is a sweet, not very funny man-child with a big appetite and a quotation from a Celestial Seasonings tea boxes (he works there) for every situation. Sam Jaeger is hung out as the pining business partner of the deceased, while classically trained actress Fiona Shaw, recently put through the ringer by Brian De Palma in The Black Dahlia, is out of place as Grady's mother. Only Juliette Lewis occasionally twitches to life as the massage therapist with whom Grady was secretly entangled.
The casting and actor's choices aren't responsible for the comedy not floating and the romantic and soulful bits being spoiled however. Grant, whose many credits include scripts for Erin Brockovich, 28 Days and In Her Shoes, can't fill the dead air and isn't able to construct a believably melodramatic plot arc. In a confessional outburst, Gray declares: "Catch and release fishermen are weenies." A killer instinct is exactly what's missing in this movie.
(Released by Sony Pictures Entertainment and rated "PG-13" for sexual content, language and some drug use.)