There were clearly a lot of cooks in the kitchen for Catch and Release. One of those cooks, writer/director Kevin Smith, unquestionably wrote every dash and comma of his substantial 'chubby best friend' part in the film, despite receiving no official credit for his work. Smith's recognizable writing flair turns up early and often throughout the piece, even in scenes not involving his character. Another cook, whether he knows it or not, is self-appointed generational guardian Zach Braff, who used his film Garden State to accelerate the iPod-ization of movies, filling every possible quiet moment with a dollop of weepy-man indie-pop. The characters in Catch and Release can't walk from the kitchen to the living room without being quickly dunked in a carefully-chosen soundtrack sampling. The chef who should have the tallest hat, Oscar-nominated screenwriter-turned director Susannah Grant, is more often than not sidelined in her own film. The simple romance she wants to unfurl, about a woman falling into the arms of her boyfriend's best friend after his untimely death, must fight for center-stage.

Jennifer Garner is Gray, a 30-ish woman apparently going on 13, since her only friends in the world are Kevin Smith's character, who walks around in a bathrobe and chews food with his mouth open in every scene and another male friend played by Sam Jaeger, whose entire mission in life is two-fold: to quietly pine for Gray and to occasionally admit to said pining so that she can knock his romantic aspirations back down like a whack-a-mole. Since neither of these clods will do as a romantic interest, economy of character demands that Timothy Olyphant's rich television director character will be carrying home the trophy before the credits roll. The film's opening scene, at the post-funeral gathering for Gray's recently deceased boyfriend, has Gray hiding in a bathroom and watching, horrified, while Olyphant's character bangs the caterer on the kitchen sink. Is this supposed to throw us off the trail? It doesn't work. With no credible rival for Gray's affections in the film, Olyphant's character could have a hundred inappropriate quickies and still walk away with the leading lady.

p>The film's most interesting element is the slowly revealed idea that the recently deceased boyfriend -- his death is never given a full explanation, something to do with skiing, I think -- was holding back a number of major secrets from his girlfriend. For starters, he was rich, which is always nice to know. Also, a significant cash payment was leaving his large bank account every month and heading out to an unknown recipient. It's this last part that Garner's grieving girlfriend can't get past, so she begins to go through the motions of tracking down exactly where this money was going, and why, and soon happens upon a New Age floozy in L.A., played with pitch-perfect irritability by Juliette Lewis. It turns out that the saintly boyfriend was holding back a small piece of information about an affair he once had, and the child it spawned. Mother and child are soon in transit from L.A. to be with grieving Garner in Boulder, which looks here like an entire city spawned out of the 3rd Street Pavilion in Santa Monica.

How well Timothy Olyphant handles the part of a largely bland leading man role is up for debate -- his bread and butter has always been creepy, comedic characters who would elicit nothing but a gasp of disgust and possibly a slap from a straight-arrow like Garner. His character, improbably named Fritz, is no one's romantic foil in the film -- he hardly has any dialogue at all with Gray's only other possible paramour, the male friend who obsesses over her -- and he slips very quickly into a rote sexual relationship with her. Catch and Release is in the recent tradition of romantic comedies that assume people will begin sleeping with each other long before there's any mutual acknowledgment of affection. It's also prone to incredible overreach, including one scene that's unintentionally funny (although I'm sure Kevin Smith would insist it is intentionally funny) in which his character makes a weak attempt at suicide. I've been watching movies for a long time, and I know that director Susannah Grant didn't intend audiences to break out into laughter during this scene, but they will anyway.

The best thing Catch and Release has going for it is a dialogue-heavy script that Grant obviously labored over and gave considerable thought to. There are no major montages or scenes of prat-fall action or vomit jokes to space out the running time, which makes it all the more strange that as a director, Grant was clearly so willing to trust the instincts of others. Kevin Smith, in particular, seems to have had completely free reign over his character, almost down to decisions like where he stands in each scene and what props he holds. Did Grant feel that it would be too risky to pull Smith aside and ask him to ease back on the stick a bit? Would Smith have walked off the set in a huff and taken his one-liners with him? Who knows. As for Jennifer Garner, she has yet to find a movie role that adds something to her resume other than new romantic comedy credentials, and this film doesn't do anything to change that. Tick-tock, tick-tock...

Also check out Jette's Catch and Release review from AFF