She Must Follow and He Must Lead
“Don’t leave me in all this pain.
Don’t leave me out in the rain.”
—Tony Braxton, “Unbreak My Heart”
Picture Paula Patton in a trashcan. The shot is tight, her eyes wide with dismay and distress, her hair slightly mussed and her makeup… perfect. Oddly and sadly, it’s a moment that rather sums up the story for Montana, Patton’s character in Baggage Claim.
The film provides a pile-on of motivation for Montana landing in this predicament, all having to do with getting married. Her many-times-married mother, Catherine (Jenifer Lewis), complains repeatedly that Montana is not, while her younger sister Sheree (Lauren London) will be married in a month. And so now Montana, a flight attendant who has spent years sleeping with all sorts of men, unbothered by her decisions and her lack of “serious” attachment, suddenly feels pressured to show up at Sheree’s wedding with a fiancé, has followed her current boyfriend home to his Chicago mansion, in order to see why he’s stood her up after promising to spend Thanksgiving with her.
Of course she doesn’t want this boyfriend, a passenger named Graham (Boris Kodjoe), to know she’s followed him home, and so she’s watching him through his big bay window from the driveway. When she bangs into trash and makes a big noise (as she must), he steps outside to investigate (as he also must), and she lands inside the trashcan (and you know she must). In another, more classic Lucille Ball-style physical exercise, you might see Montana clamber into the can. Here though, she’s on her cell phone with fellow flight attendant Gail (Jill Scott), who’s instructing her from afar. “Get in that can!” Gail exhorts. And with that, you see the picture described above.
This picture lays out the stakes for Montana, stakes that have little to do with the entirely mundane plot of David E. Talbert’s movie. (It’s probably not worth your time to think through the possibilities of the title, like, who’s the baggage and who’s claiming.) You know from the first few minutes that Montana will be married by film’s end, and that she will be married to her best friend and neighbor, played by Derek Luke and named, oh God, wait for it, William Wright. The stakes for Montana are just as dreary as her story, but more distressing. Gail duly insists that she needn’t kowtow to Catherine’s old-fashioned notions, that indeed, “It’s the 21st century, you don’t need a man to define you.” Just as duly, Montana and the third term in their flight-attendants-buddyship, Gay White Boy Sam (Adam Brody, predictably gifted with the snarkiest wisecracks), nod, if not soberly, then at least as if they’ve heard her.
At which point they proceed with scheming how to find the man to define Montana.
So, these are the distressing stakes, that the ancient rom-com formula is adorned with allusions to less backwards thinking, but plods ahead anyway, as if these allusions have nothing to do with the formula. The scheme to find the man in Baggage Claim may be contemporary, in the sense that she and her cohorts (illegally, they admit) use flight manifestos and cell phones and other airline connections (including La La Anthony [!] at a check-in counter and terminally hyper Affion Crockett on the security line) to locate passengers with whom Montana’s hooked up before, in hopes that one of them has changed enough to be marriage material. The plan is to put her on their flights so she accidentally meet them and from there, test their current suitability.
None is right. Congressional candidate Langston (Taye Diggs) prefers his lapdog Juicy (and occasions Montana’s best joke, concerning Tiger Woods’ father Earl), pop star Damon Diesel (Trey Songz) prefers his scary sugar momma (Tia Mowry-Hardrict), and Quinton (Djimon Hounsou) is too fabulously rich and also too uninterested in marriage. The marriage piece is crucial for Montana, despite the model offered by her mother and despite her own until-this-instant turn-around on the issue. It’s Mr. Wright who articulates the case, describing his parents’ decades-long “magic,” despite and because of occasional disagreements. It’s the longevity that counts, he maintains, not the marriage as act.
Per formula, Montana buys this story. She endures all manner of humiliation and abuse and faux dilemmas to find her man, or more accurately, to find herself in order to recognize her man. That she finds herself in a trashcan is only a first step, but oh, how painful it is.