(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2007)
The perpetual question – why can’t mainstream movies be better? How could I find myself in a weekend when, having already exhausted the possibilities of every award hopeful in sight (except for Miss Potter, which I wouldn’t see even under threat of having Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle shoved up my rear end), the choice was this: Catch and Release, Epic Movie, Blood and Chocolate and Smokin’ Aces? Well, that’s a bit of a false set-up of course. For one thing, Stomp the Yard and Arthur and the Invisibles were still playing from previous weeks. More damagingly to my own credibility, since I’m subscribed to every movie channel in sight, have hundreds of DVD’s I never get enough time to watch, and am not exactly a million miles away from some of Toronto’s finest rental venues, there’s no rational reason why I wouldn’t have stayed at home and watched something absolutely transcendent. Jeez, I would even have been better off watching Every Which Way but Loose again. Or The Nutty Professor. The Eddie Murphy version.
Walking to the Scotiabank
But you know, I just like going to the movies. I like doing the walk, say to the Paramount, about fifteen minutes distance from where I live, and listening to my ipod there and back (this time it happened to be the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik, which I never thought I liked that much, but everything sounds better on the ipod walking to or from a movie) getting my snack (I must confess I’ve taken to smuggling stuff in lately, usually from Starbucks) and settling down and following the whole routine. The previous day my wife and I had been to the Ansel Adams/Alfred Eisenstaedt exhibit at the AGO (great stuff but hey AGO guys, maybe letting a thousand people into two smallish rooms all at the same time isn’t really consistent with any known theory of how to facilitate aesthetic appreciation) and then over to Kensington Market for the first time in years. So that was a real solid “Best of the City” kind of day. And then there I was on Sunday, with the demands of my new job not having kicked in yet, and with my wife working, and nothing else on the agenda…how would I possibly not go to a movie?
Anyway, I chose Catch and Release. The reasons for this include a writer-director of modest pedigree (Susannah Grant, who wrote Erin Brockovich), two thumbs up on Ebert And Roeper (albeit for highly suspect sounding reasons), and most of all that if I’m going to trawl the bottom of the barrel I’d generally rather indulge my chick side than my guy one (although there have been many exceptions to this statement). So there I was at the Paramount, which by the way isn’t called the Paramount any more, but rather the Scotiabank Theatre, following a big naming rights deal of some kind. The premise I believe is that when the monied middle-class of the future comes to see Harry Potter or Hostel Two at the Scotiabank Theatre, it’ll subliminally attribute its cinematic pleasure not just to the wonders of the Hollywood machine, but also in part to the venerable sponsoring institution, which will consequently wrap up customer loyalty for life. I said that rather sarcastically, because that’s my chosen tone for this week I guess, but obviously these guys know more about value creation than I do, so I’ll assume they’re on to something. Insofar as the branding stuck in my own mind during the film, it was via the vague sense of being locked inside an ATM machine.
Catch and Release
Catch and Release stars Jennifer Garner as Gray (I don’t get these names either) whose fiancée is killed on the eve of their wedding, and is thus thrown into grief and turmoil. She has the support of her always present male friends (director Kevin Smith plays one of them) and the unwelcome dynamic of another buddy she never liked (Timothy Olyphant), who’s sleazy enough to have sex at the funeral with one of the caterers. And then, as she puts the dead man’s affairs in order, she starts to find things out – such as a million dollar bank balance she never heard about before, and then an apparent four year old son, from a liaison with a masseuse (Juliette Lewis).
The guest critic on Ebert and Roeper made much of the film’s affection for its characters, and indeed there’s a general affability to events here. Lewis for example turns out not to be the gold-digger one initially suspects, but rather a well-meaning if mixed-up woman trying to survive the hard knocks. A shame that her characterization makes no sense whatsoever. Niceness, as Dick Cheney might say, may be a personal virtue, but is not a basis for sound examination of modern living. Neither, indeed, is Garner a basis for much of anything – her quirky beauty here mostly seems merely pinched and washed out.
The underlying notion is of adversity casting aside illusions and allowing a more mature renewal. The film doesn’t quite come out and say the fiancée’s death was the best thing that could have happened to these people, but that’s the conclusion you have to draw – that his golden boy attributes kept everyone in arrested development for years. If the movie really grappled with that, it might have an appealing nasty streak, but given the affability I mentioned, it merely circles its themes like an exhausted vulture, consistently telling us about pain rather than showing it. It’s suggested that Garner’s excessive prim and proper ways drove her fiancée into the haven of Lewis’ arms, but nothing we see on screen provides a basis for assessing this. The Smith character actually attempts suicide, or at least a “cry for help,” although up to that point his main interest in the departed seemed to be in conniving to loot the now-unwanted wedding gifts. I suppose the earlier behaviour is meant to be just displacing his grief, but since Smith is about as graceful an actor as he is a director, the character is merely a blob of incoherent activity.
Watch TV next time!
The combination of female director and female star always provokes hope of a more progressive approach to familiar material, although God knows how that hope survives so much evidence to the contrary. Suffice to say that although at the end Garner makes a big brave decision of sorts, this merely involves her driving hundreds of miles to deliver herself into the arms of the man she’s decided she wants. Even a couple of hours after the film ended I’d forgotten what her career was meant to be (the film’s modest fidelity to economic plausibility is one of its minor virtues, although it’s yet another concoction where no one’s job seems to detract too much from having time to hang out), and her character never expresses an interesting thought in two hours, so I guess it’s not much of a loss. Overall, Catch and Release is just a big glossy blank space. Like I said, Hollywood perpetually tests one’s allegiance to the magic of the movie going experience. Next time, I swear, I’m staying home with Bresson.