There’s only one joke that truly sticks its landing in Baggage Claim. It’s delivered by the film’s bouncy heroine, Montana (Paula Patton), while out with hypocritical congressional candidate Langston (Taye Diggs), one of her many well-to-do exes, with whom she may tie the knot just to appease her mother, Catherine (Jenifer Lewis), and beat her youngest sister, Sheree (Lauren London), to the altar. Accepting a hefty campaign donation from a white Republican backer (Ned Beatty), Langston strains to stifle his anger regarding the donor’s racist statements, about how the money will help Langston’s “people,” like “that Tiger Woods,” a man whose “blackness,” Langston begins to argue, isn’t reflected in his actions. Aiming to break the tension, Montana cheekily chimes in with, “I think what makes Tiger Woods black is that he drives an Escalade and his father’s name is Earl!”
Leaving the fellow characters speechless, and then in stitches, this kind of layered, politically barbed, and sociologically self-deprecating crack feels like it was added by someone far more astute than writer-director David E. Talbert, who otherwise adapts his own 2003 novel into something as useless as it is implosive. Set up like a fairy tale, Baggage Claim wastes no time employing the flight puns, as Montana, a flight attendant, laments in voiceover that her love life “has never been ready for takeoff,” and it’s been all the worse since she’s played bridesmaid for her multiple sisters and in her pushy mom’s multiple marriages. With only 30 days until Sheree’s wedding, Montana’s co-worker and BFF, Sam (Adam Brody), suggests that she forget about new dates and instead reconnect with old flames, whose flight plans he implausibly hacks, while enlisting the aid of an eclectic bunch of airport employees. Joining Langston in Montana’s cache of obscenely successful former beaus is hip-hop record producer Damon Diesel (Tremaine “Trey Songz” Neverson) and worldly hotelier Quinton (Djimon Hounsou), both of whom conveniently fall right back in love with Montana, for no apparent reasons beyond her beauty and the fact that she’s the star of this movie.
The myriad problems with Montana begin with the way she’s written, as Talbert pulls a Stephenie Meyer and crafts a hollow, spoiled female protagonist for whom everyone else will inexplicably walk through fire. Claiming to be searching for love beyond materialism, Montana is the kind of character an actor might defend as a role model, but one a feminist would rail against as the regressive antichrist, whose “independence” the movie only pretends she gains. (“It’s the 21st century,” says Jill Scott’s Samantha Jones-impersonating Gail. “Why do you need a man to define you?” And Montana can’t offer an answer beyond her selfish need for love and her mother’s Mrs. Bennet-like influence.) Matters are worsened by the complete undoing of whatever progress might have been spurred by the relative novelty of a mainstream movie containing a woman of color as the buddy-boosted lead, and they’re finally slaughtered by the casting of Patton. Distressingly indicative of the studio system’s baby steps toward equality, Patton is presumably being groomed as the new Halle Berry—a leggy knockout of mixed race whose skin is just light enough that she can land top-billed roles, and reach beyond the Tyler Perry niche market. It doesn’t help that Patton’s performance here is a depthless clown act. Never knowing when to downplay the romantic fable’s princess-y aspects, Patton seems to wander around like an whiny, awkward child, delivering a turn that’s bland, over-emotive, and gratingly earnest to a fault.
And Baggage Claim basically slits its own throat by rendering its entire conceit moot before even getting things rolling. From the moment William (Derek Luke), Montana’s neighbor and lifelong friend, is introduced, it’s blindingly clear that he’s the Mr. Right she’ll eventually end up with (hell, even his last name is Wright), so her subsequent misadventures are bled dry of any drama they might have generated. This includes a jaw-droppingly tacky segment with womanizer Graham (Boris Kodjoe), who, in a scene that amazingly doesn’t seem meant to be a dream, brings Montana onto his yacht for some action straight out of a sidewalk-sale romance novel. As the sun sets on the horizon, and an Usher song rises on the soundtrack, Graham traces Montana’s skin with rose petals before revealing his six pack abs, and climbing on top of her in nothing but a pair of brightly colored, 2(x)ist-type boxer briefs. Talk about first-class.