Dir: Susannah Grant. US. 2007. 110mins.
An ambitious romantic comedy-drama that tries to find love and humor amidst the tragedy of death, Catch And Release is a jumble of tones searching for a consistent rhythm. In her directorial debut, Oscar-nominated screenwriter Susannah Grant touches on sombre subject matter rarely addressed in Hollywood offerings, but because of her inexperience behind the camera - and a weak central performance from Jennifer Garner - the results are mostly lifeless.

Opening on Friday in the US, Catch And Release seeks to separate itself from two conventional romantic comedies (Because I Said So and Music And Lyrics) that will be arriving closer to Valentine's Day. But by falling into that uncertain marketplace netherworld between sober drama and effervescent romance, Catch will prove a tough sell for Columbia Pictures.

Perhaps best known for her breakout turn in television's Alias, Garner has had minor parts in several hit films (including Catch Me If You Can, Pearl Harbor and Daredevil), but her track record in starring roles has been less stellar (while 13 Going On 30 brought in $96m worldwide, with most of that revenue coming from Stateside, Elektra collected less than $57m in total.) With writer-director Kevin Smith (Clerks) in a supporting role that is unlikely to attract his core audience of teen and college boys, the film, which expands to overseas markets through the spring and summer, will probably have an easier time cashing on in the DVD market.

After the accidental death of her fiance Grady, perfectionist Gray (Garner) tries to move on with her life, aided by the support of two of his friends: jokester Sam (Smith) and straight-arrow Dennis (Sam Jaeger). But when she uncovers dark secrets about Grady's past, she starts to question the seemingly wonderful man she loved. Against her better judgment, she also pursues an ill-advised relationship with Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), Grady's immature, womanising buddy.

With its mixture of tear-jerking sentiment and deadpan humor, Catch And Release stands alongside Brad Silberling's Moonlight Mile and Mike Binder's The Upside Of Anger in its attempt to catalogue the full spectrum of emotions - both the highs and the lows - that accompany grieving and loss. Specifically, writer-director Susannah Grant wants to illustrate how a tragedy, ironically, helps a prototypical good girl with the picture-perfect life finally find real happiness and discover her true self.

This is tricky emotional terrain with little room for error - when handled poorly, injecting laughs into a film about death can feel gauche. But Grant (in her screenplays for 28 Days and the Oscar-nominated Erin Brockovich) has demonstrated a penchant for interweaving comedy and drama, giving her characters a lived-in, three-dimensional realism. With her script for Catch And Release, however, the jokes are too glib to offer much respite from the underlying sadness, and her failure to fully establish the main characters' motivations renders the film's dramatic moments unconvincing.

Grant also missteps with a subplot involving a ditzy-but-good-hearted massage therapist (Juliette Lewis) who comes to town with a key to Grady's past. Drawing the character broadly, Grant aims for comic relief but mostly ends up with a one-note caricature, and the revelation of Grady's long-buried secret plays out rather predictably without much emotional significance.

In addition, Grant's shapeless direction results in a middling performance from Garner. No matter how many times other characters discuss her squeaky-clean perfectionism (sometimes in derogatory terms), Gray doesn't come across as a tightly-wound over-planner suddenly unmoored by her fiance's death. Too many scenes lack crispness as Grant awkwardly oscillates from comedy to drama and back again; nor does Garner have the emotional range on her own to navigate Gray's shifting moods.

On the other hand, Smith, in his first substantial acting role, exhibits an appealingly easy-going manner as a goofy guy who uses wisecracks to shield his more sensitive side. But because Grant hasn't provided him with enough good comic material, he often lapses into an improvised dude-speak that mimics the patter from his own films.

The biggest disappointment, though, is Olyphant. Though terrific on HBO's Deadwood, here he seems uncomfortable playing a selfish cad. Consequently, Fritz and Gray's relationship is problematic at every stage. When they first give in to their attraction, her interest in such a clearly incompatible man feels forced. Later, when they start to fall in love, Grant fails to demonstrate what binds them together and causes them to change their ways for each other. Catch And Release's seesaw of melancholy and cautious happiness hinges on the success of the central romance, but it's dead on arrival.

Production companies/backers
Columbia Pictures
Relativity Media

US distribution
Columbia Pictures

International distribution
Sony Pictures Releasing International

Jenno Topping

Executive producers
B Casey Grant
Ryan Kavanaugh
Lynwood Spinks

Susannah Grant

John Lindley

Anne V Coates

Production design
Brent Thomas

Tommy Stinson

Main cast
Jennifer Garner
Timothy Olyphant
Kevin Smith
Sam Jaeger
Tina Lifford
Fiona Shaw
Juliette Lewis