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Facial Agility Jennifer Garner's performance adds interest to film

Jennifer Garner has possibly the most expressive face in contemporary movies. Watching her move from confusion to disbelief to grief to anger - from uncertainty, to trepidation to tentativeness to joy - is kind of like looking through a kaleidoscope. With each quarter-turn, you see something different and dazzling.

Garner's compellingly watchable face has a good deal to do with making "Catch and Release" seem better than it actually is. Not that the movie is bad; it deviates from formula enough to hold your attention while you are watching. But there are some troubling, if niggling, details that the editors really should have been able to see and dispense with.

Garner ("Alias," "13 Going on 30") plays the improbably named Gray Wheeler, whose fiance dies days before the wedding, leaving her wearing widow's weeds instead of a gown on what was to be her wedding day. In days following the funeral, Gray discovers that her fiance (Grady) was keeping a couple of significant things from her: He had a huge secret bank account as well as a child.

Reeling from this news, she moves into the house Grady shared with his dour business partner, Dennis (Sam Jaeger), and his best friend, Sam (Kevin Smith). Another friend, the morally irresponsible Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), decides to delay his trip back to Los Angeles in order to grieve with the others. Together, the production notes say, the friends provide each other with company and comfort while they learn to deal with the death.

"Catch and Release" is billed as a romantic comedy, but it is no bit of Meg Ryan fluff. Though it has great flashes of humor - most often provided by Smith ("Clerks") - and though the characters find partners along the way, to call it a romantic comedy is to do it a disservice. Writer and director Susannah Grant ("Erin Brockovich") has created a complex, multilayered story that is so truthful to the experience of grieving and moving on that it is both painful and cathartic - often at the same time.

The beauty of "Catch and Release" is its agile rendering of not just Garner's character, but of all the characters, all of whom are flawed and at times unlikable as they move through the five stages of grief in their individual ways.

A troubling note, sadly, is the development of Gray and Fritz's pivotal relationship. Garner and Olyphant ("Deadwood") have wonderful chemistry - his sly, sensuous Dennis Quaid-like face is a perfect foil for Garner's wide-eyed guileless; together they throw off a lot of heat. Their initial hook up is excruciatingly raw and real, but as their physical attraction - which they give into out of vulnerability and sadness - morphs into a relationship, a crucial piece is missing. And a pat, upbeat Hollywood ending seems to have been slapped on. It is inconceivable that Grant, whose entire screenplay is filled with authenticity and pathos, could have crafted the artificial lifetime-moviesque last scene.

e-mail: bsullivan@buffnews.com

***

CATCH AND RELEASE

2.5 stars (out of 4)

STARRING: Jennifer Garner, Timothy Olyphant, Kevin Smith, Sam Jaeger, Fiona Shaw and Juliette Lewis

DIRECTOR: Susannah Grant

RUNNING TIME: 111 minutes

RATING: PG-13 for sexual content, language and some drug use.

THE LOWDOWN: After her finance dies, a woman finds comfort in his friends - and discovers some significant secrets.

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