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MOVIE REVIEW

Garner and friends only skim the surface in 'Catch'

Not to put too fine a point on it, but "Catch and Release" is the chick-flick version of guy-cry movies like "Garden State " and "The Last Kiss. " Like them, it features underdrawn yet quirky characters onto which a youthful audience can project its anxieties. Like them, it uses an iPod playlist in place of story structure, and like them it knows there are no easy answers but gives them to us anyway. The film's a pleasant enough daydream before it turns all squoodgy at the end.

Jennifer Garner, oddly coming off as a bit of a roadshow Julia Roberts, plays Gray Wheeler, a Boulder, Colo., woman whose wedding plans turn funereal when her fiance is killed during a bachelor party boating accident. We never see him -- the movie's about her road back to the land of the living -- and it's just as well, since the more of his secrets we learn the more Gray and we want to give him a sharp kick.

"Catch and Release" focuses mostly on her friendships with his surviving circle of buddies. There are three of them: Dopey, Grumpy, and Hunky, played respectively by Kevin Smith (the director of "Clerks" in a rare acting-only role), Sam Jaeger , and Timothy Olyphant ("Deadwood"), whose constant three-day stubble is a miracle fashioned by God himself.

Dopey and Grumpy -- their names are Sam and Dennis, really -- live together, and I spent most of the movie assuming they were a couple, especially given Smith's penchant for muumuu -size bathrobes. They're just roommates, though, despite the marital squabbling; all three men burn a torch for the grieving near-widow, and when Gray moves in with the boys, tiptoeing around those emotions becomes deafening.

As written and directed by Susannah Grant, the writer of "Erin Brockovich " and, more pertinently, "Ever After" and "In Her Shoes," "Catch and Release" wears its heart on its peasant-blouse sleeve, and it has a fondness toward most of its characters that other movies would do well to emulate. Grant knows life can be an unholy mess, and she's attentive to that mess until she just can't help grabbing a dustpan and start cleaning up.

In the process, Gray thaws from a perfectionist wife-in - waiting to a sloppier, happier, better human being. So we're led to believe, anyway, but "Catch and Release" never convinces us there was a real person there to begin with. Gray has no parents, no female friends, a vague job at a desk somewhere but no career -- she's an outline Grant hasn't bothered to fill in. Garner gives her a lik able personality but little depth or force of character. She's all elegant, elongated lines, like a beautiful and slightly puzzled Afghan hound.

The male roles are marginally richer; certainly they're funnier. Smith tries to carve out a new niche for himself as a wacky best friend and comes fairly close. Smith's character, Sam, works for Celestial Seasonings, where he comes up with literary quotes for boxes of tea. Even his suicide attempts are cute. Olyphant, in the not-so-bad-boy role, twinkles charmingly until all of a sudden, and through no real fault of his own, it stops being charming.

There's a funkier and more interesting movie in Maureen, a character played by Juliette Lewis. Maureen is a single mom, a massage therapist, and a dimwit California follower of every new-age theory out there. She's a nasal, needy wreck, and "Catch and Release" is torn between adoring her and making ruthless fun of her.

Ultimately, the movie's a romantic melodrama in the vein of a 1930s women's picture or a 1950 s true-love comedy. Not that there's anything wrong with that, although both those forms had a pulpy conviction "Catch and Release" is too timid to embrace. The film is as sensitive and unchallenging as its strumalong soundtrack, the soft-focus playlist of Gray's life. I'd be more interested in hearing Maureen's playlist, but it probably wouldn't sell as many CDs.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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