Catch and Release

Plenty of movies deal with death and its aftermath. “Catch and Release” has the distinction of addressing death in the manner of a slightly subdued romantic-comedy. We begin with tears, but the overall effect is supposed to be frilly and fun.

What’s surprising is that it actually works, kind of. The morbid elements don’t overpower the movie’s good-naturedness, and the lighter aspects don’t turn the death into a triviality. Susannah Grant, who wrote “Erin Brockovich” and adapted “In Her Shoes,” makes her directorial debut walking a delicate balance between comedy and tragedy, and she handles it reasonably well.

The death that sets the film in motion is of a young man named Grady, who perished in an accident just days before he was to be married. His fiancee, Gray (Jennifer Garner), is devastated, of course. She seems to have no family or friends of her own (which is odd) and relies on Grady’s friends and housemates, slacker Sam (Kevin Smith) and sensitive Dennis (Sam Jaeger), for support. In fact, because she cannot afford the house she and Grady were going to rent without his help, she moves into Sam and Dennis’ place, taking Grady’s old room.

That arrangement is a little contrived, and so is the introduction of another character: Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), a fairly sleazy Hollywood type who was also Grady’s friend and confidante. He and Gray don’t get along well at first, which in Movieland can only mean that a romance is in the offing.

If it seems forced for Gray to find a new love so quickly, not to mention disrespectful to her much-mourned dead fiance, well, it is. The budding romance is treated like a cliche, too, including the scene where she goes to slap his face, he catches her hand, she tries to slap him with her other hand, he catches that one, now he has both her hands, and they kiss. How old is that?

The movie doesn’t dwell on Gray and Fritz, though. Their mess is but one of several subplots related to the aftermath of Grady’s death. One of them involves a New Age-y massage therapist from L.A. named Maureen (Juliette Lewis) whose connection to Grady I won’t spoil. Another concerns Gray’s friendship with Dennis. There is also the matter of Grady’s wealthy, imperious mother (Fiona Shaw), who is uncertain how to deal with Gray now that her son is dead. How does one treat one’s almost-daughter-in-law?

Grant keeps the film lighter than you’d expect, and does so in a mostly realistic fashion. Most of the humor is gentle, and consistent with friends gingerly regaining their composure after a tragedy. Movies often make it seem like all happiness dies with the deceased, but in real life, people are still people. If you had a sense of humor before your friend died, you’ll probably still make jokes afterward — not about his death, of course (at least not right away), but about other things. It’s how people cope after a loss, and it’s a sign that life will still go on.

I like the casual, Joey-and-Chandler friendship between Sam and Dennis, and the way they make Gray part of their bachelor lifestyle, the way Grady would have wanted it. I don’t like the Celestial Seasonings product placement (Sam works for the company and is constantly reciting quotes he’s read on their packaging), nor is there much cause for Dennis’ unrequited crush on Gray.

I chuckled at the film more than I thought I would, and rolled my eyes less frequently. The multiple story threads make it a little unfocused from a thematic standpoint, but it’s a generally well-executed lark, neither too serious nor too silly for its subject matter.

B- (1 hr., 51 min.; PG-13, for scattered profanity, a little moderate sexuality.)