Susannah Grant ’84 has written a host of female-friendly flicks.
Written and directed by Susannah Grant ’84. Columbia Pictures, 2007 DVD release. 118 minutes.

Reviewed by Amy Kroin

Like her pillow-lipped compatriots Molly Ringwald and Angelina Jolie, actress Jennifer Garner often relies on a mouth-centric acting technique. This is nowhere more evident than in the opening minutes of Catch and Release, in which Garner conjures up the various stages of grief (denial, anger and so on) in her depiction of a bereaved girlfriend. Pivoting among fellow mourners in her little black dress, Garner thrusts her lips out and tucks them back in, engaging in a prolonged session of mouth calisthenics.

Fortunately, Garner’s lips settle down as the movie progresses and her solid acting takes over. Written and directed by Susannah Grant ’84, Catch and Release is a guilty pleasure that hit screens at a time of year generally reserved for forgettable thrillers and career comebacks gone awry. After premiering their Oscar hopefuls throughout the fall, studios often dump their lesser lights in the early months of winter—which makes the mild charms of Catch and Release all the more surprising and appealing.

Best known as the screenwriter of Erin Brockovich, the Oscar-winning biopic about a stiletto-heeled crusader for justice, Grant has written a host of female-friendly flicks, from Disney’s Pocahontas to the Drew Barrymore fairytale vehicle Ever After. “In the late ’80s and early ’90s,” Grant told Amherst in 2000, “I just felt that a lot of the women in movies weren’t women I recognized. When I was growing up, you had Norma Rae, and Silkwood, and Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer. Those women were real. They had real decisions to make.”

Grant’s most accomplished screenplay is for 2005’s overlooked In Her Shoes. An adaptation of Jennifer Weiner’s bestselling novel about a brainy and responsible sister and her beautiful ditz of a sibling, In Her Shoes could have succumbed to all kinds of Hollywood formulas. But Grant’s portrayal of two clashing sisters is nuanced and moving; it’s one of the rare cases in mainstream cinema where the term “chick flick” could be worn as a badge of honor.

Unfortunately, Catch and Release, which marks Grant’s feature-film directing debut, doesn’t measure up to In Her Shoes. Hamstrung by predictable plot turns and characters who function as stock types, the movie is familiar Saturday afternoon filler. Still, its amiable cast and Grant’s restrained, sure-footed direction salvage the film.

In Catch and Release, Jennifer Garner has Julia Roberts-caliber charisma. Garner stars here as Gray Wheeler, whose fiancé, Grady, died in an accident days before their wedding. Not long after the funeral Gray discovers that her beloved kept a couple of mighty big secrets from her. First, Grady was rolling in cash. Second, he had an affair with a massage therapist in Los Angeles and fathered a child with her. Needless to say, the first discovery is a bit more palatable to Gray than the second.

Grant assembles a motley array of characters to keep the narrative humming. There’s Maureen (Juliette Lewis), the tarted-up vegan massage therapist, Sam (Kevin Smith), Grady’s quote-spouting huggy-bear best friend, and Dennis (Sam Jaeger), Grady’s ultra-conscientious fly-fishing business partner. To spice things up there’s also the perennially stubbled Fritz (Deadwood’s Timothy Olyphant), an artist turned Tinseltown sellout who’s the only one who knew all of Grady’s secrets.

From the moment Fritz bares his white-stripped smile it’s clear that Gray’s aversion to him is going to morph into attraction. Soon enough a slap turns into a kiss and the games begin. Fritz is a bit of a sleaze, but he’s a sleaze with a heart of gold, and he plays well opposite the strait-laced Gray.
The film’s chief flaw is its length. At 118 minutes it needs some serious pruning. The final third meanders as Grant works overtime to tie up all the narrative threads.

The writing is crisp enough throughout, but a pivotal dinner scene shows what the movie might have been. Seeking to loosen up, Gray discloses some long-held secrets: that she steals library books, adores natural disasters and feels disappointed when the death toll for such catastrophes is lower than anticipated. The writing here has an idiosyncratic zing that’s too often missing elsewhere in the screenplay. It reminds the viewer of what Grant is all too capable of.

Kroin is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in The New York Times and the Boston Globe, among other publications.