The prospects for Catch and Release looked about as promising as going on a date with Michael Richards to the Hip-Hop Awards. Commercials suggested this was just another light romantic comedy.

That early assessment could not have been more wrong.

Catch and Release does have plenty of light romantic comedy elements. And Jennifer Garner proves that she can break our hearts and make us smile in the same scene.

What gives this film an inner strength is that director/writer Susannah Grant has created characters who act like real people. They don't deal with grief with some false bravado. These characters cope with a devastating event through support, laughter, tears and, in one case, some recreational sex.

Garner plays Gray Wheeler, a woman whose fiance is killed on his bachelor party fishing trip. The grieving bride-to-be turns to her fiance's best friends to help her get through the tragedy.

These friends are like three parts of what would be a perfect man. Dennis (Sam Jaeger) is a sensitive soul who has been hiding a painful emotional secret for years. Sam (Kevin Smith) faces life with a smile and a lighthearted attitude.

Then there is Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), a Los Angeles filmmaker who should be the poster boy for irresponsible actions. He's the one who gets up close and personal with one of the caterers at his buddy's funeral.

Catch and Release could have easily snuggled into the bosom of being a safe romantic comedy by having these friends spend all their time talking about the virtues of the dearly departed. Grant's script is smarter than that. Slowly, the abandoned bride begins to learn that her fiance had been hiding some major secrets.

Not since The Big Chill has a movie taken such a fresh and appealing look at how friendships can be tested and embraced at the time of great emotional confusion. Just like that film, the storyline works because of flawless performances of flawed characters.

Garner's the key. The role requires her to be vulnerable but strong.

It is a delicate line to find. The best example of the perfect balance of her performance comes during a dinner scene. Wheeler spontaneously begins admitting all the secrets she had kept from her fiance.

The scene shows how important it is for the character to confess what she considers to be an injustice she committed. At the same time, it is a pronouncement that she has forgiven her fiance's indiscretions.

The heart and soul of Catch and Release is that its characters act like real people. Not all their decisions are right. They just do the best they know. It is that element that keeps Catch and Release from just being another light romantic comedy.

Grade: B+