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Ebiri on Baggage Claim: A Gracelessly Conceived and Executed Rom-Com

Paula Patton is one of those actresses who seem to light up the screen whenever they appear, but even her considerable charms can’t quite make Baggage Claim tolerable. A gracelessly conceived and executed romantic comedy about a flight attendant who’s becoming increasingly restless about the fact that she can’t ever seem to meet Mr. Right, this is a movie that can’t decide on the story it wants to tell, and can’t seem to tell it particularly well, either.

It opens on Montana Moore (Patton), in voice-over, describing the fact that her mother loves marriage so much she keeps getting married, over and over again. That leaves Montana to always be the bridesmaid, which suggests that we’re about to get a variation on the 27 Dresses template, but with a maternal twist. Well, that doesn’t quite pan out; after that intro, mom (played by the talented Jenifer Lewis, who always shows up as a mother in these things) stops being a major player in the story. In the meantime, after experiencing heartbreak at the hands of a very special (and very rich) guy that she thought might have been the One, Montana is reduced to using the special skills of her wisecracking fellow airline employees (among them a winning Jill Scott and Adam Brody) to determine when her exes are flying during the holidays, booking seats next to them so as to arrange cute run-ins that will hopefully blossom into something quickly — in time to score a date for her sister’s upcoming wedding.

But wait — what about her longtime best friend, William Wright (Derek Luke), from whom she lives across the hall and with whom she shares such wonderful companionship? Of course there’s something there, and it’s one of the film’s few smart moves that it doesn’t try to pretend that it's not. (He is, quite literally, Mr. [W]Right.) Anyway, there are about three different movies in this description: a mother-daughter dominance comedy, an always-the-bridesmaid comedy, a going-around-the-country-trying-to-find-love-with-various-exes comedy. And it takes some nuance and deft storytelling to juggle them all smoothly. Alas, the film has none of these things.

This kind of by-the-numbers material can often be brightened by some good performances (see this year’s earlier Peeples for an example). And Baggage Claim actually does have a few of those — Patton is her usual lively self, and Taye Diggs, Boris Kodjoe, and Trey Songz all have nice turns as her abortive paramours. But with dialogue this clunky, this unimaginative, there’s only so much any of them can do. (“I guess a girl can have anything. An MBA. A J-O-B. But no M-A-N.” “My relationships have never been … cleared for takeoff” — this last one as we see Montana reach to grab the bouquet at a wedding, only to have the bouquet get stuck in a tree.) Writer-director David E. Talbert, adapting his own novel, also offers up some of the most eye-rollingly tired comic devices out there; the film’s go-to gag is Montana declaring that she will never do such a thing (“I am NOT going out on that fire escape!”), immediately followed by a cut to her doing precisely that. Filmmaking!

To add insult to injury, Baggage Claim also has all the visual charm of a high school graduation video, with flat lighting, awkward compositions, the works. Sometimes, the shots almost seem artificially zoomed-in, with characters looking like they’re about to bleed off the edges of the screen — and not in an artfully, off-kilter way, but in a we-just-got-this-camera-and-lost-the-instruction-book kind of way. Which is bizarre, because cinematographer Anastas Michos is a veteran with dozens of credits to his name, including some perfectly fine looking movies like Man on the Moon. An early love scene, which is supposed to make us think that Montana and her man of the moment have achieved a special bond, is so clumsily framed and put together that it looks like trims from the cutting-room floor of a softcore porn flick. These aren’t the kinds of things one wants to worry about in a modest romantic comedy — we don’t come to these films looking for original plot, startling dialogue, or brilliant imagery. Here, however, the sloppiness of the filmmaking is genuinely distracting. But we still love you, Paula.

Photo: Fox Searchlight