Sometimes you have to travel 30,000 miles just to appreciate the guy who lives down the hall — or so goes “Baggage Claim,” a movie about a Flight Attendant Barbie type who runs herself ragged chasing romantic prospects while her perfect suitor may as well be waving lighted wands from the runway the entire time. “Girl, open your eyes!” you want to shout, not that it would improve the exasperating situation. That kind of talk-back is typical of playwright David E. Talbert’s popular urban theater shows, though this watered-down adaptation of his 2003 novel is too worried about attracting white audiences (which it won’t) to let its African-American attitude take off.
The project represents something of a gamble for Fox Searchlight, which doesn’t have nearly the track record that Lionsgate (home of Talbert successor Tyler Perry) has had with black viewers; nor has it made the effort to court crossover audiences to support this release. Cynically speaking, the casting of light-skinned star Paula Patton (“Precious”) looks like a bid to broaden the pic’s appeal. But the actress’s beauty could almost be a liability here: If a woman this stunning can’t find a man to marry, what hope do others have?
As a book, “Baggage Claim” allowed Talbert to entertain his female following with corny advice on finding the ideal man. After years of world travel, Montana Moore has developed a theory that all guys fall into one of five categories, ranging from “overnight bag” (no-strings fling) to “trunk” (old and worn), but the perfect man is like the perfect set of luggage: “Full of compartments. So many that just when you think you’ve figured him out … he surprises you with a hidden nook or a forbidden cranny.” So if you’re onboard with Talbert’s tortured metaphor and want to know the right match for Montana, just look for the one with the forbidden cranny.
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The trouble with “Baggage Claim” the movie is that it makes immediately obvious which man Patton’s Montana should wind up with. Back in elementary school, William Wright proposed marriage with a ring retrieved from the bottom of a Cracker Jack box, and now, whenever Montana needs cheering up, good old Mr. Wright (Derek Luke) is just across the hall, ready to boil a lobster and mix apple martinis until she feels better. But Montana is hopelessly slow on the uptake, as evidenced by how many of her romantic prospects are married, gay or otherwise involved with someone else.
While it’s not unusual to want a man, Montana’s reasons are all wrong: Her altar-obsessed mother (Jenifer Lewis) has been married five times, and she’s been pressuring Montana to get hitched as well. Now that her much younger sister (Lauren London) is engaged, Montana calculates that she has 30 days to find a fiance of her own or risk irreparably disappointing her mother. And while her latest beau (Boris Kodjoe) has awesome abs, the rest of the package is far from perfect.
That’s where Montana’s boy-crazy best friends, fellow flight attendants Gail (Jill Scott, baring her cleavage) and Sam (Adam Brody, with limp wrists and a two-day beard), hatch the scheme to find her a husband in one month’s time: They will track the travel itineraries of all Montana’s exes and arrange for her to bump into them en route, hoping that these men have matured into worthier suitors in the time since they split up. Though silly, such a plan ought to support a fun, Meg Ryan-style romantic comedy, if not for the over-obvious way all Montana’s travels are clearly just a distraction from the man she really belongs with.
And so the film pretends that any of Montana’s exes stands a chance: There’s the hip-hop star (Tremaine Neverson, aka Trey Songz), the aspiring Congressman (Taye Diggs) and the international businessman (Djimon Hounsou), all of whom seem desperate to pick up where they left off the last time around. Despite being played by a who’s-who of handsome black actors, these characters just aren’t the right fit for Montana’s baggage — though Talbert manages a few decent laughs at their expense, including a priceless dig at black Republicans.
Chemistry you can fake, but charm is far harder to pull off, and “Baggage Claim” never quite succeeds on that front. Talbert has clearly studied what makes similar films click, but instead of finding a fresh spin on old cliches, he merely repeats them (as when an unhappy Montana asks no one in particular, “Could this get any worse?,” cuing the rainstorm). Frankly, Montana is far too easily seduced to snag a husband, making the only man genuinely interested in marrying her the one who hasn’t had sex with her yet.
While it’s nice to see Patton at the center of such a strong black ensemble, Talbert hasn’t quite figured out how to adjust his directing technique from stage to screen. The production values are fine in an overly bright, sitcomish way, but the actors are capable of far more than their roles call for. Reduced to making cutesy faces throughout, Patton doesn’t act so much as mug, and her men are similarly underdeveloped. Perhaps fitting for a tale of missed connections, “Baggage Claim” leaves one wondering what might have been.