LOS ANGELES - 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!" 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 to let its African-American attitude take off.
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.
The trouble with "Baggage Claim" the movie is that it makes immediately obvious which man Montana (Paula Patton) should wind up with. Back in elementary school, neighbor William Wright (Derek Luke) 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 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.
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) and Sam (Adam Brody), 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.
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. However handsome they may be, these characters just aren't the right fit for Montana's baggage - though Talbert manages a few decent laughs at their expense.
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).
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. Reduced to making cutesy faces throughout, Patton doesn't act so much as mug. Perhaps fitting for a tale of missed connections, "Baggage Claim" leaves one wondering what might have been.
"Baggage Claim," a Fox-Searchlight release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "sexual content and some language." Running time: 96 minutes.