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Stellar cast lifts ‘Catch and Release’ out of cliché

Jennifer Garner shines as grieving fiancé who discovers groom's secrets in this romantic comedy.

Jennifer Garner is primarily a television star, thanks to five seasons of “Alias,” but she’s been making multiplex in-roads with “Elektra” and “13 Going on 30,” and now “Catch and Release,” a romantic comedy that dares to be melancholy.

It’s the most complex big-screen role she’s had to date, even if the movie has as many downs as ups. It’s the kind of comedy-drama that doesn’t always succeed in blending a variety of moods. Still, it’s exceptionally well-cast and escapes predictability just often enough to become quite watchable and even, during its final reel, rather touching.

Garner plays Gray, a Boulder, Colo., woman whose fiancé, Grady, dies just before they’re scheduled to be married. The wedding day suddenly becomes a funeral day. The flower shop doesn’t get the message in time and makes the wrong delivery. The wedding gifts are opened as if nothing had happened to change the tone of the event. The fiancé’s shocked mother (Fiona Shaw) behaves badly, suggesting that Gray is no longer part of the family.

Writer-director Susannah Grant specializes in awkward, inappropriate moments like that, as Gray copes with grief by bonding with her dead fiancé’s best friends and eventually moving in with them: boisterous Sam (Kevin Smith), thoughtful Dennis (Sam Jaeger) and philandering Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), who behaves like a randy wedding crasher at the wake.

The groom's secret lifeThere’s a pall over the house, and it grows as Dennis and Fritz fall for Gray, who learns more about the supposedly saintly Grady than she wants to know. It turns out that he was supporting a child in Los Angeles, where the boy’s mother, Maureen (scene-stealing Juliette Lewis), worked as a massage therapist. When she turns up with the kid at their Colorado home, the menage turns into an unruly crowd.

Grant, who makes her directing debut with “Catch and Release,” previously wrote “Erin Brockovich” as well as the current remake of “Charlotte’s Web,” and she definitely has a knack for off-the-wall soap opera. She delicately handles Dennis’ unrequited love for Gray, as well as the tension that builds to a mutual attraction between Gray and Fritz. The fate of the child is treated with unusual sensitivity.

At first, the characters may not seem to be registering their loss, but gradually they reveal how much is going on beneath the surface. Dennis does it by registering his disappointment that Grady wasn’t perfect. Gray expresses it in a sudden confession of all the bad things she’s done, including her compulsive stealing of library books and other embarrassing habits. Fritz does it simply by admitting that he misses his best friend. 

“Catch and Release” could easily have been another arrested-development movie like “The Breakup” or “Failure to Launch,” and there are times when it comes much too close to aping that dead-end genre. But Garner and Grant work hard to push the picture into unexplored territory, and the cringe-worthy moments are easy to overlook.