The bride wears black in

Catch and Release

, a romantic dramedy (rom-dram?) about a woman whose fiance's funeral preempts their wedding.

Jennifer Garner stars as Gray, the shell-shocked intended. For reasons emotional as much as financial, Gray moves in with the roommates of her late love, who was co-owner of a Boulder, Colo., fly-fisherman outfitter. All three of her fiance's best friends are deeply smitten with her. And at least one knows that Fiance Had a Secret.

It is Gray's posthumous put-down of her would-be spouse's vocation - the sportsman's practice of hooking a fish and then setting it free - that suggests the film's title.

But screenwriter Susannah Grant, here making her feature directorial debut, alludes also to the kind of guy who would land a gal and then throw her back into the river. You know, the guy for whom romance is all about the pursuit and not at all about the relationship. So diffuse and confusing is the film, though, that I didn't know which guy she meant.

Before distinguishing herself as the screenwriter of Erin Brockovich, Ever After, and In Her Shoes, Grant wrote and directed episodes of Party of Five, the TV show about the siblings whose parents died in a car accident (not unlike the precipitating event of Catch and Release). As her filmography shows, Grant likes the sweet and sour scenario where romantic comedy and tragedy emulsify. Unfortunately here, these elements congeal.

Grant's film plays like a two-hour episode of Friends intercut with Seventh Heaven. Those sounds you hear are wisecrack, heartbreak, heartbreak, wisecrack, wisecrack.

Catch and Release has some appeal - winsome Garner; wisenheimer Kevin Smith (the Clerks writer-director plays one of Gray's roomies); and cinegenic Boulder, with its pristine rivers and mountains. It's a pity that Grant fails to establish a consistent tone.

Gray, whose dimples are as deep as the Rockies are high, inexplicably has neither girlfriend nor parental shoulders to cry on. As consoling figures, the friends of her late fiance come off as the Three Bears. Dennis (Sam Jaeger) is too introverted. Sam (Smith) is too extroverted. And Fritz (Timothy Olyphant) is too much the horndog.

While Dennis quietly pines for her, Sam is more obvious about his feelings. He's the guy whose job is finding inspirational quotes for Red Zinger and Blueberry Breeze tea boxes (Celestial Seasonings is headquartered in Boulder), and Gray is his test case. Those who think Smith is surprisingly good as best friend might remember that in life that's his relation to Garner's spouse, Ben Affleck.

However diverting are Garner, Smith and the scenery (and here's a shout-out to legendary editor Anne V. Coates for her sharp cutting), the ricochet-romance aspect of Grant's film is, frankly, icky. Doesn't the almost-widow get a chance to grieve before she moves on?

There's a psalm that says weeping may endure for the night but joy comes in the morning. This surely is the point of Grant's film, that grief paves the way to gladness. It would have been nice had she dramatized this insight instead of slapping the sentiment on the film as if it were a box of tea.

Catch and Release ** (out of four stars)

Produced by Jenno Topping, written and directed by Susannah Grant, photography by John Lindley, music by BT, distributed by Sony Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 51 mins.

Gray Wheeler. . . Jennifer Garner

Fritz. . . Timothy Olyphant

Dennis. . . Sam Jaeger

Sam. . . Kevin Smith

Mrs. Douglas. . . Fiona Shaw

Parent's guide: PG-13 (sexual candor, profanity, marijuana use)

Playing at: area theatersEndText

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey
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