PLOT: A young Colorado woman is forced to rebuild her life when her wedding day turns into the funeral of her fiance and she starts discovering his secret past.
With a little help from your friends, even in the face of catastrophe and heartache, you can accomplish miracles.
That is the hopeful if bittersweet theme of Catch And Release, which features Jennifer Garner in her most well-rounded, most serious and most grounded starring role.
Garner is a post-hippy gal living in Boulder, Colo. We meet her on her wedding day, which has now morphed into the funeral for her intended, a reckless extreme-sports enthusiast who has died in an accident.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, she relies on his circle of male friends -- who are now her circle, too -- to rebuild her life. The grieving is complicated by the sudden discovery of her fiance's tangled past, including a secret that changes everything. It throws her whole being into an emotional vortex.
Meanwhile, she also discovers that each of the friends -- played by Timothy Olyphant, Sam Jaeger and the irrepressible actor-filmmaker Kevin Smith -- has his own agenda. So does a wildcard gal played by Juliette Lewis, who is completely off the wall. The other key player is Fiona Shaw as the dead guy's manipulative mother.
Catch And Release is the work of screenwriter Susannah Grant, who earnered an Oscar nom for the screenplay of Erin Brockovich and also penned the underrated Curtis Hanson drama, In Her Shoes. With the new movie, Grant makes her directorial debut.
The filmmaking is not always satisfactory. Some passages seem overwrought and unbelievable, as if the project veered into sitcom territory for a few scenes and then jumped the shark into melodrama. But, for the most part, Catch And Release (the title refers to the practices of the fishing fanatics in the story) is involving and occasionally endearing.
It certainly is well acted. Garner is enormously appealing as a leading lady, partly because she seems oblivious to the need to look glamourous. On the funeral day, she should look dreadful. On recovery days, she sometimes looks haggard. On other days, she looks funky, like a New Ager would in a mountain city in Colorado. And, when it counts, she looks fabulous, in a girl-next-door way that makes her flesh-and-blood real.
As for leading man Olyphant, he is wonderfully subtle, using his eyes and his wane smile to convey more than dialogue would. This is an actor who, now that he is maturing, could become a major star. Everyone else here is really good, including wacky Lewis in the movie's most difficult role.
But it is Smith who steals the picture whenever he is on screen. This is the first major "acting" role he has had outside one of his own pictures. Smith claims he is not really an actor and doesn't know what he is doing. But he is no fraud, not with these chops, this gumption, this sense of timing. This is not Silent Bob Redux.
While he reportedly drove Grant bonkers because he could or would not follow her script, Smith brings huggie-bear appeal to his role as one of the inner circle who rallies around Garner. Yet he has his own deep-rooted issues, his own bitterness over the loss of his friend. He expresses it in sarcasm and in his eating disorders (and Smith is ballooning up huge in real life, so he did not need body padding to play the fat-guy role). There is pathos here.
Catch And Release is all character-driven. You laugh and you cry, as the cliche goes. You get involved. This may not be Oscar material for 2007, but it is a decent way to spend time at the Bijou.
BOTTOM LINE: Jennifer Garner shows a fresh new face in this bittersweet romantic comedy. Timothy Olyphant has star potential. And Kevin Smith shamelessly steals scenes to deliver the laughs.
(This film is rated PG)