The fly fishing imagery is everywhere in Catch and Release. On one hand, it’s literal, meaning that folks repeatedly tie flies and head out to a Colorado lake to cast lines. On another hand, the title works metaphorically, which means someone’s going to learn lessons about “letting go.”
This someone is Gray (Jennifer Garner), who first appears in close-up, her tears barely but stoically contained, as she attends her fiancé‘s funeral. Apparently Grady went off on an outdoors adventure just before the wedding, and didn’t come back (details are sketchy). She’s sad that they had a fight before he left (that she behaved like “some hysterical fishwife,” perhaps a predictable, if heavy-handed simile to choose, considering all the other fishy allusions) and sadder still that she’s left alone with a pile of unimaginative wedding gifts: blenders, waffle irons, and bland cookware.
Miserable listening to assorted relatives and acquaintances console her, Gray seeks respite in the bathroom, sinking into the tub and closing the curtain, her little black dress sharply contrasted with the cool white porcelain. In stumbles Grady’s Malibu-based best friend Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), along with a lusty blond caterer. The assignation is complete within 30 seconds, Gray listening with face a-grimace. When she observes that Fritz is about to light a joint, however, she makes herself visible.
Gray’s line-drawing indicates early on what she comes to find about herself later, that she’s a bit of a priss, even if she is breathtakingly lovely and so, quite irresistible to the full range of Grady’s buddies, from Fritz to his fly-fishing business partner Dennis (Sam Jaeger) to Dennis’ roommate and Celestial Seasonings employee Sam (Kevin Smith). As Gray has been living with Grady in a now-unaffordable home, she moves in with the best friends, such that all have to find a way to move on without him.
This process takes up the rest of the movie, as untoward truths emerge concerning Grady’s seemingly perfect life. For one thing, he was a millionaire and for another, he had a one-night affair with a new agey masseuse, Maureen (Juliette Lewis). She arrives from Los Angeles with her four-year-old son in tow, a child she suggests was fathered by Grady, whom he’s been supporting since the one night in question. Gray’s annoyed by this development, no doubt, but it also lets her off the standard-issue movie-moral hook, in that she’s already found herself attracted to the run-of-the-mill rapscallion Fritz (the usually compelling Olyphant is oddly colorless here). The fact that he makes movies in L.A. might be telling: as he observes, movies are “worse than commercials,” all about selling product. “We’re all going to hell,” he concludes, “With a fat-ass check to smooth out the ride.”
Gray doesn’t precisely buy this performance of self-consciousness, and resents Fritz’s incursion into Grady’s unfinished business. But she can’t seem to help herself: Gray and Fritz dutifully engage in sexual liaisons, which they try to hide from their housemates. It turns out that everyone has a certain desire that’s not being met when it comes to Gray. Each relationship suggests just how clueless Gray has been and remains when it comes to her friends, not to mention her lovers. How is it that she missed Grady’s bank account activities for the years they were together, as well as Maureen’s existence? How has she been living with Dennis all this time and never bothered to notice his gargantuan crush on her? And how has she never noticed that Sammy, so garrulous-seeming and stereotypical, is woebegone, to the point of attempting suicide following Grady’s demise?
That said, her lack of sensitivity is of a piece with the film’s. (Sam’s ostensible despair becomes occasion for more funny-fat-guy joking.) Perhaps her inattentiveness explains her attraction to Fritz, who retains his caddish sensibility even when he becomes the designated Love Interest. The film is long on great-looking surfaces (the crew takes in gorgeous lakes and woodsy areas during their pursuit of peace and reconciliation, and, no question. Garner is delightful to gaze on), but its versions of deep thinking and soul searching are exceedingly weak.
While such short-cutting of character is at least partly a generic formation (romantic comedies don’t tend to reveal great insights as to motivations or desires), Catch and Release is particularly stuck in first gear. It assembles various characters, all in need in some way and all identifiably different from one another, allows to them to scatter and collaborate, in scenes that might come and go in almost any order. All must come to terms with admittedly devastating loss and, perhaps more troubling, their insistent misreading of others.
Again, the romantic comedy doesn’t allow for much innovation when it comes to such dilemmas: the longing for and discovery of soul mates tend to be the route to self-improvement as well as self-understanding. That this movie doesn’t find a way out of the morass of cliché and triviality isn’t surprising, but it is disappointing.