When movies stars really want love, they run for it. They run to train stations and airports. They run across cities, across time, across Fenway Park. Based on the amount of running done in Baggage Claim, no one in the history of movies has ever wanted love more than Paula Patton. A hilarious amount of this movie devotes itself to her in motion. When she runs, it’s your pulse that goes up. “Run” isn’t exactly what Patton does, either. She gallops. The best thing about her previous romantic comedy, Jumping the Broom, was seeing her bounding through a house and across lawns. The movies could use more of her coltishness.
Patton’s Hollywood sisters (and grandsisters) — the best and most popular of them, anyway — have just been too sophisticated, too self-actualized, too free, too smart to do that sprinting: Katharine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day, Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, even Katherine Heigl. They hem. They haw. Then they succumb. They have standards. Some of them try running the other way first. Not Paula Patton. Paula Patton will run you down for love.
In Baggage Claim, she gets out of a car at the airport, runs toward the check-in, then runs back to the car because she forgot something. The movie knows it’s a good gag. She does it three times. And that’s the other thing about Paula Patton. She might run you over, but it’d be an accident. She’d turn right around and say something like, “Oh my god. I’m so sorry. I have a man to catch. Did I say that? — I meant plane. God, I’m such a dork.” That wouldn’t be untrue. She is a dork.
Baggage Claim has Patton playing a flight attendant named Montana Moore.1 And the reason she’s always on the run is occupational, yes, but personal, too. Her baby sister (Lauren London) is getting married, and her fabulous, man-eating mother (Jenifer Lewis) won’t stand for Montana showing up alone at the wedding. She has 30 days to find a solution.
Crazily, that name is almost the same as the transsexual daytime star played by Cathy Moriarty in the severely underrated Soapdish.
So Montana’s bickering best friends/coworkers — Jill Scott (buxom; breathy; horny) and Adam Brody (slender; mannerly; willing to leave the queeniness to Scott) — devise an only-in-the-movies travel network, courtesy of pals at curbside check-in, ticketing, and security, that alerts her whenever one of her exes is about to fly. The thinking here is that it has been a while; maybe one guy’s eligibility (or suitability) has changed. There’s a young record producer (Trey Songz) and a Congress-bound chauvinist (Taye Diggs), as well as her sturdy Baltimore hallmate (Derek Luke), a strapping businessman (Boris Kodjoe), and Djimon Hounsou as a jet-setting hotel magnate with a fatless face and viscous accent. (Almost none of these men flies coach.)
The movie, which David Talbert wrote and directed, comes up with one reason after another for Montana to turn them down. Some of them are legitimate. The record producer, for instance, is a fool. Her hallmate taxis her around in his truck, opens her mail, but has a girlfriend (Christina Milian). One of these gentlemen will reveal himself to be Mr. Moore. The rest are less — but never less than — entertaining, especially Diggs and his invention of bitchy machismo. This is a silly, predictable movie, but it never runs out of small, happy surprises. It’s a romantic comedy fried in chick-flick batter. Montana’s husband-hunting seems initially like the sort of depressing fantasy you find in a Heigl movie. (Montana has toiled as a bridesmaid only a third as many times as Heigl in 27 Dresses.)
But Talbert is going for something more classical. He’s made a kind of 1930s romantic comedy, stuffed full of charismatic characters and screwball nonsense and good throwaway lines. It also has the robust sense of indecency that gave some ’30s comedies their kick, and remains cute and cutting without going crass. Scott’s character, Gail, calls after Montana hooks up with the businessman and asks Montana whether she’s still having sex. “I wouldn’t answer the phone,” Montana says. “I would,” says Gail, with a purr. The movie takes the ludicrousness of this scenario and wrings glamour and lavishness from it. That’s not just a matter of the five-star hotels, apartments, and yachts. It’s also having an actress as flamboyantly regal as Lewis sashaying around, bellowing judgments. She’s like Thelma Ritter, Celeste Holm, and Pearl Bailey all being done by one drag queen.
Talbert has thrown in some topical farce, too. For the business-meeting scene in a fancy restaurant that these movies have been doing for eight decades, Diggs’s politician takes Montana to dinner with a donor (Ned Beatty). Just as the two men are about to get into an argument about the authenticity of Tiger Woods’s blackness, Montana interrupts this way: “What I think makes Tiger Woods black is that he drives an Escalade and that his daddy’s name is Earl.” You have to hear for yourself Patton’s aw-shucks delivery, but a line like that is a conversion moment for a skeptical audience. It tells you somebody’s home.
The movie didn’t have to go there, but it does over and over. Scenes like that seem to borrow from the loose, louche banter of an Ernst Lubitsch movie. It’s all “Look ma, no hands!” stuff. Talbert’s other movie was a gassy hostage comedy called First Sunday, with Ice Cube and Tracy Morgan holding up the churchiest of churches. It didn’t work, but it had something that passed for wit. This new film has actual wit. Most crucially, though, it has Patton.
Patton is a severely youthful 37-year-old light-skinned black woman. Her neck is thick. Her shoulders are wide. She’s tall. If acting didn’t work out, there’d always be volleyball. (Diggs is almost half Patton’s size.) She’s had memorable parts in Precious (she was the funky lesbian writing teacher, Miss Blu Rain) and the last Mission: Impossible movie, and is better known for her beauty and her husband, Robin Thicke.
But Patton is best at contagious bliss. She might be the best at it. When she smiles, you smile. You want her to have what she wants even when how she wants it is stupid. The running is a big deal with her. But that just lands her in a specific movie club. What’s most special about Patton is her buoyancy. As a star, she’s impervious to gravity. Her voice has some rasp and girlishness and wonder. She was raised in Los Angeles, and it’s California you hear when she speaks. It’s optimism and hope. The other romantic comedy stars have struggled in some way. Is their idealism compatible with their feminism? Patton is conflict-free, an actor who floats and carries you up with her. Judy Holliday, Mary Tyler Moore, and Goldie Hawn could do that. Amy Adams did it in Enchanted. Emma Stone does it on award shows. Taraji P. Henson did it in Think Like a Man. Adams made just one obvious romantic comedy, 2010’s Leap Year, and it was awful, partly because you could feel her hating herself for making it. She didn’t want to be that kind of star, a let-go balloon. She needed emotional anchors.
Patton doesn’t seem to care about any of that. (Baggage Claim is actually an ironic title for a woman who travels this light.) It’s fair to see her crinkling up her nose or grinning ear to ear, to see her so radiantly unself-conscious, and mistake her delight for cluelessness. She just doesn’t need to show you how smart she is, which is why that Tiger Woods line lands so perfectly. She’s a dingbat with a sniper’s aim. It’s as if she has passed all of the self-doubt without even having to go through it. The romantic comedy needs that kind of assurance right now. It needs a star who can be important for movies without seeming to have an ounce of importance in her.
Maybe it’s a note of progress that the great sports controversies are now largely self-inflicted. The egotism they expose fails to alter the larger culture. Alex Rodriguez and Lance Armstrong, for instance, debase the thrill of principled self-aggrandizement. Their version of righteousness is a joke. The stakes are big but narrow. The goal isn’t to protect a legacy, per se — it’s to uphold a commercial brand. The Trials of Muhammad Ali, a magnificently concise documentary by Bill Siegel, recalls a moment in which one man’s beliefs enthralled the planet. Much of Ali’s stardom owed to his presentation and packaging. He was a showman, but a rare ideological one.
The film reminds you that his showmanship had an angle. Largely, it looks back on the seismic impact of Cassius Clay changing his name to Muhammad Ali and joining the Nation of Islam. He did so not long after his upset of Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight title in 1964 shocked the country. He then upset the establishment by renouncing what he called his “slave name.” Ali’s natural charisma had hooked up with a charismatic political outfit whose pro-black, anti-white, anti-integration platform amplified his bravado. He renounced his draft status, refusing to join the Army and go to Vietnam, on both religious and historical grounds. (The Vietnamese didn’t lynch his people. That was America.)
Ali was convicted of draft evasion, stripped of his title, and banned from boxing while awaiting the outcome of a Supreme Court appeal. The film explores the legal ingenuity that kept him out of prison and the cultural fruit born of his almost four-year absence from boxing. Ali’s conscientious-objector status transformed him from an athlete to a spokesman against injustice. He was the fighter who wouldn’t go to war.
The film deploys the usual nonfiction arsenal of news footage, archival photographs, and interviews to bring home the strange electricity of these seven or so years. Siegel gets the right footage, photos, and people (including the journalist and current ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte, Ali’s second wife Khalilah Camacho-Ali, and Louis Farrakhan, who’s as mischievous as ever). Siegel doesn’t slather the images in agenda or overproduction. This isn’t an argument so much as an evocation: The wire from that era is still live. As race-conscious as 2013 America might seem, it’s got nothing on the 1960s and 1970s.
Ali was the most crucial transformational figure from that era. For one thing, he was the major race figure who survived it. For another, whether he was confronting or being confronted, he had a camera-ready stardom. Even when he was wrong ideologically (and as Elijah Muhammad’s bigoted mouthpiece, he often was), Ali was irresistible. He could make the wrongness seem sensible. This was a man who came to equate most relationships with whites as a form of slavery. Photos of him seated at a conference table surrounded by some of the 11 white Kentuckians who managed his money provide a little psychological clarity. Technically, they worked for him, but still. By 1966, both sides had parted ways. The assassinations of the 1960s left Ali oddly and increasingly alone at the vanguard of civil rights iconography. He became the dapper, eloquent embodiment of both violence and nonviolence, militancy and charm. He presented sports as theater, politics as theater, theater as theater (there’s a clip of his bearded, Afro-ed performance in Buck White, a musical that opened on Broadway at the end of 1969). This movie makes you feel his radicalism all over again. Whenever athletes declare themselves the greatest, it feels somehow like a mockery of the complexity of Ali’s greatness. His progeny’s self-obsession differs from Ali’s self-regard. It’s punier. This isn’t to say Ali didn’t have a brand to promote and protect. He did. But his brand was humanity.
The Ali documentary is rolling out incrementally. If you happen not to live in one of the handful of U.S. cities showing it and want a movie about risk and consequence in sports, Ron Howard’s Rush will more than do. It makes comic drama of the season-long 1976 contest between Formula 1 drivers Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) to end that year atop the sport. Howard and his crew give the races an impressionistic zing. Getting into a car after this movie is like having sex after seeing John Holmes work. You’ll feel like an amateur.
The script is another Peter Morgan special. Like, say, The Queen and Frost/Nixon, it’s a speculative duet built around a moment of newsworthiness. That moment in Rush involves a crash at the German Grand Prix that left Lauda with severe burns on his face and in his lungs. The crash occurs beyond the movie’s halfway point, raising the film somewhere higher than the enjoyable odd-couple competitive-strategy piece it had previously been. It becomes a compelling enactment of athletic philosophy that, better than most sports movies, individuates the thrill that makes athletes compete.
Both Lauda and Hunt are affluent outcasts. They want to prove their families wrong. Otherwise, they’re opposites. Lauda is a funny-looking Austrian pedant. Brühl, a Spanish-born German, plays the part sugar-free. He’s like a Rafa Nadal post-match press conference. Lauda knows mechanics, understands physics, and has a complete awareness of the logistics required to win. He loves that he’s smarter than everyone else. Hunt is a slutty rock star from England. He parties, prefers his shirts open to his navel, and likes to go fast. That, entertainingly, is that. Hunt’s arrogance provides Hemsworth’s smoldering dullness with a suitable home.
The crash gives the relationship depth and Lauda’s recovery stinging purpose. From his hospital bed, he can see Hunt’s teeth gleaming from the winner’s podium. (Howard doesn’t even need to include the “ting” sound effect.) The film spells out what’s different about these two. The accident happens after Lauda tries to cancel the race and Hunt basically calls him a pussy. Lauda wants desperately to win. He just isn’t willing to die for it. He’s risk-averse. For Hunt, it’s safety last. Any risk-awareness dampens the fun. Morgan’s script wonders aloud about professionalism versus bravado; pragmatism versus showmanship. It convincingly asks what winning entitles a champion to. To that end, Rush might be an inapt title. They could’ve just called the movie More.