Claudia Myers' Kettle of Fish is, in many ways, a throwback, but this is not a bad place to throw back to every now and then. Recalling all manner of classic screwball romantic comedies, from When Harry Met Sally ... back to The Awful Truth, it's essentially really well-done fluff that makes full use of the greatest unnatural backdrop in the world, New York City.
As per the conventions of the genre, a sometimes whimsical, sometimes melancholy jazz score propels the proceedings, which concern the adventures of Mel (a surprisingly no-longer-boyish Matthew Modine), a full-time bachelor and sometime saxophonist with deep attachments to a ramshackle railroad and a goldfish named Daphne, but who is otherwise incapable of commitment. Refreshingly, Mel knows that his caddish ways are growing old as fast as he is; when he observes his best friend's deep bond with his wife of 20 years, the panic sets in. Mel immediately impulsively suggests that he and his young, Swedish, insufferably dull girlfriend shack up together; that plan backfires as soon as there's another option on Mel's horizon. Actually, there are two, and what options: first, we have Gina Gershon, faking English (sometimes awkwardly, but, surprisingly often, admirably) to play Ginger, a nerdy-yet-beautiful research scientist; and the gorgeously fresh-faced Christy Cashman as Diana, Mel's married crush. Ginger sublets Mel's apartment during his short-lived flirtation with cohabitation, sparking a barbed friendship loosely built around Ginger's scientific interest in Mel's relationship with Daphne. Mel and Diana meet cute, with her in a wedding dress running to catch the water taxi to her Brooklyn marriage and accidentally landing in his arms; he proceeds to essentially stalk her until time comes to decide which femme really floats his heart.
Cashman seems, at first, to be doing a spin on the kind of slightly tough, slightly dizzy blonde that Judy Holliday used to play; it's when we figure out that the actress is really playing the Marilyn role that things get really interesting. Mel is a living model of that old Big Punisher lyric, "I'm not a playa, I just crush a lot." His non-romance with Diana is the perfect encapsulation of how he usually gets crushed. It's a no brainer which gal Mel is going to end up with, but Cashman's Diana is so appealing, at least initially, that I wished she had had more of a chance. In fact, Myers has to go to some pretty cliched lengths in the last act to make room for Ginger and Mel's inevitable pairing, which is disappointing -- Kettle of Fish is never what you might call "naturalistic", but at its best, it at least feels genuine. It would be nice to see fewer superficial obstacles between Mel and his lady loves-- if only because it would require the character to actually have to make difficult decisions about the course of his life. As it stands, Kettle's resolution doesn't give much reassurance that the perpetual manchild has, in fact, grown up.
Still, Kettle has its charms, and to those generally susceptible to well-done examples of genre, it'll probably be a delight. Sure, it's fluffy and gauzy, but I'd rather be watching a film like this, about the lives grown ups -- or, for that matter, of recognizable human beings -- than most of the half-formed dreck that seems more and more to pad out festival lineups.