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Can Paula Patton become Hollywood’s next romantic comedy heroine?
She’s taking her shot this weekend with the release of “Baggage Claim.” In it, she plays a flight attendant who, prompted by her younger sister’s engagement, uses her travel privileges to criss-cross the country in search of boyfriends past who might have been The One. Certainly, the genre needs a fresh face. Could it be hers?
She’s proved she can handle light comedy (as the well-to-do bride in “Jumping the Broom”) and that she can hold the screen opposite even a male lead as charismatic as Denzel Washington (“Déjà Vu,” “2 Guns”) or Tom Cruise (“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”). It certainly doesn’t hurt that she has some name recognition, even among people who haven’t seen her movies, thanks to her marriage to singer Robin Thicke.
Still, “Baggage Claim” will mark the first time that a movie has rested primarily on her shoulders. Even so, the stakes are modest; the movie cost just a reported $ 8.5 million, so it’ll have to be a real dud at the box office not to make a profit.
One obstacle Patton may face is that, since she’s a biracial woman, Hollywood may not feel comfortable casting her in romantic comedies with white male love interests, even though she’s married to a white guy in real life. Indeed, her suitors in “Baggage Claim” are black, and justifiably or not, the conventional Hollywood wisdom has it that movies with black casts play to niche (black) audiences, while movies with white or mixed casts play to everyone. (For more insight into the depressing mindset at work in such calculations, read the first two paragraphs of Variety’s “Baggage Claim” review.)
The writer/director of “Baggage Claim,” David E. Talbert, is a product of the same African-American theatrical morality-play circuit that produced Tyler Perry, so “Baggage Claim” could, unfortunately, reinforce the notion in the minds of Hollywood casting directors that Patton needn’t be considered for roles in crossover films. It’s sad that this is where we are in 2013, but if Patton doesn’t want to be stuck in a racial pigeonhole as an actress, the guy in her next movie will have to be Gerard Butler — or some other rom-com leading-man mainstay.
Another issue is her age. She’s 37, and while that’s far from ancient in the real world, it means she’ll have an awfully short window to make her mark as a rom-com heroine in Hollywood. (Indeed, the plot of “Baggage Claim” plays on the fact that Patton’s character has aged out of the dewy-eyed ingénue phase.) Patton is younger than Drew Barrymore but older than Reese Witherspoon or Katherine Heigl. So the clock is ticking.
But the biggest obstacle in her way — and in the way of any actress who wants to star in romantic comedies — is that the basic formulas for rom-com scripts and heroines really haven’t changed much in the last 25 years, ever since Nora Ephron’s script for “When Harry Met Sally” became the blueprint. Since then, the rom-com heroine is almost always a single career woman living in the big city, a woman who is hyper-competent in her professional life but hopelessly dithery in her personal life. She meets a guy who seems all wrong for her — he’s a bad boy, or at least something other than the settle-down-and-live-responsibly type. But he loosens her up, gets her to have fun, and makes her recognize that she craves passion more than stability. (He’s the male version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character who up-ends the male lead’s life when a romantic comedy has a guy protagonist.) After 90 minutes of her adorable bumbling and stumbling, she sees the light, and so does he, recognizing that he really is the settling-down type, and both live happily ever after.
We’ve seen this heroine over and over again, as played by Meg Ryan, and then Julia Roberts, and then Sandra Bullock, Reese Witherspoon, and Katherine Heigl. And it looks from the plot outline that Patton’s Montana Moore in “Baggage Claim” is cut from the same cloth.
A truly breakout romantic comedy heroine may require a breakout script, from a breakout filmmaker. But then, the public would have to embrace a non-formulaic romantic comedy, something like what Nicole Holofcener or Lynn Shelton does, movies that have romance and comedy in them but don’t otherwise fit the rom-com mold. Along those lines, it seems like Holofcener has been trying for 20 years to make Catherine Keener a rom-com star, in movies from “Walking and Talking” to “Please Give.” (Keener has a supporting role in Holofcener’s new “Enough Said.”) Lynn Shelton has been trying to do the same with the edgy Rosemarie DeWitt, in “Your Sister’s Sister” and the new “Touchy Feely.” Mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig always seems on the verge of a mainstream breakthrough, as a heroine in offbeat romantic films by acclaimed filmmakers like Noah Baumbach and Whit Stillman, but she may have blown her shot with her biggest mainstream role to date, as Russell Brand’s love interest in the reviled remake of “Arthur.”
Women like these used to be the norm in romantic comedies, not the exception. The genre as we know it began in the 1930s, with such confident, fast-talking, sharp-tongued heroines as Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard, and Rosalind Russelll. They gave way to the wily golddiggers of the ’50s (like Judy Holiday and Marilyn Monroe), seemingly dumb blondes who weren’t dumb at all. By the 1970s, we’d started to get organic everywomen (Diane Keaton, Barbra Streisand, Jill Clayburgh) who matched the nebbishy guys (Woody Allen, Dustin Hoffman) being put forth as romantic leads. But in the 1980s, we started to see a retrenchment, with money and consumer lifestyle choices taking center stage (this was when screenwriter Nancy Meyers got her start, with movies like “Private Benjamin” and “Baby Boom”), and the adorably clumsy princess stereotype (pioneered by Goldie Hawn) began to take root.
By the time “When Harry Met Sally” came along, the woman’s supposedly fulfilling work life (seldom actually shown) was little more than lip service to feminism; these new romantic comedy heroines were clearly incomplete without a man, and all their accomplishments meant nothing if they didn’t have dates on New Year’s Eve.
Maybe we’re looking in the wrong place. On TV, Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, and (to a lesser extent) Zooey Deschanel are redefining the rom-com heroine in innovative ways. Instead of a dithery princess waiting for the right man to come along, each of these actresses plays a dorky but smart woman whose self-confidence and assertiveness make her attractive to men. (In a nice meta-touch, each of their characters is also fully versed in movie rom-com clichés and is determined to transcend them.) Men come and go, but our heroines soldier on. Romance is par t of the journey, even if it’s not the destination.
So far, only Dunham (in “Tiny Furniture”) has tried to bring this kind of romantic heroine to the big screen. (Kaling, in movies, seems to get stuck in the best-friend or ex-girlfriend role, while Deschanel’s entire movie career seems to consist of Manic Pixie Dream Girls.) Combine that kind of character with an actress who’s as movie-star-beautiful as Patton, and you may be able to sell a new romantic comedy archetype.
Gallery | The Top 20 Female Comedy Teams in Movies
- 20. Parminder Nagra and Keira Knighley, “Bend It Like Beckham” (2002)
Fresh-faced performers Nagra and Knightley both became international stars as soccer teammates in this culture-clash sports comedy. Give director Gurinder Chadha credit as the third funny female on the squad. Not to mention Shaheen Khan and Juliet Stevenson as the players’ disapproving moms, both tradition-bound in their own way.
- 19. Halle Berry and Natalie Deselle, “B*A*P*S” (1997)
We’re so used to seeing Berry play wounded pride and righteous anger that it’s a shock to see her play loose and funny, as she does in this very silly Cinderella story about two homegirls who suddenly score a ticket to the glamorous life. Sure, it’s a long way from her usual prestige roles, but really, would you rather sit through the harrowing “Monster’s Ball” again than watch this?
- 18. Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler, “Big Business” (1988)
In this update of Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors,” Midler and Tomlin both play dual roles as two sets of mismatched twins who finally get to set things right during a random series of run-ins at New York’s Plaza Hotel. The actresses’ crack timing makes all the scenery-chewing go down easy.
- 17. Anna Faris, Emma Stone, Kat Dennings, Katharine McPhee, Rumer Willis, Kiely Williams, Kimberly Makkouk, and Dana Goodman, “The House Bunny” (2008)
Faris, who’s been the movies’ female comic MVP of the last decade or so, is an over-the-hill Playboy playmate (at age 27) who finds herself overseeing a college sorority of nerdy misfits and making them over, Hefner-style, into self-confident hotties. Even as a comic conceit, it’s pretty hard to buy the notion that Hefnerism actually offers practical and ethical guidelines for living, but Faris and her protégées manage to sell it.
- 16. Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, and Betty Grable, “How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953)
Monroe, Bacall, and Grable go downmarket as three hard-luck beauties determined to rise above their station by marrying for money instead of for love. But Cupid has other plans. The film is a reminder that these three performers were more than just pin-ups; they were smart and witty, too, and capable of rapid-fire repartee.
- 15. Shelley Long and Bette Midler, “Outrageous Fortune” (1987)
Long and Midler strike some sparks as a mismatched pair of amateur actresses (one uptight, one earthy) who learn that they were being two-timed by a spy who faked his own death. They reluctantly unite to hunt the bastard down, and there’s something liberating in watching these two characters, both pampered New Yorkers out of their depth, turn into badass, streetwise sleuths.
- 14. Rebel Wilson, Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Anna Camp, and Hana Mae Lee, “Pitch Perfect” (2012)
The indomitable Wilson, as Fat Amy, gets most of the credit for making this choral comedy sing, but the movie’s harmonious, hilarious flow really is a group effort by the Bellas, the collegiate “Glee”-style singing group that goes for the gold here.
- 13. Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu, “Charlie’s Angels” and “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” (2003)
Recognizing the camp value of the old ’70s babelicious-detective show, the version 2.0 Angels play the action and sleuthing mostly for laughs. It’s not enough that they have rockin’ bods and “Matrix”-style martial arts skills; they also are all endearingly goofy.
- 12. Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953)
Monroe has one of her more iconic roles as golddigger Lorelei Lee, but jaded Russell holds her own opposite the doe-eyed Marilyn. Traveling together on a transatlantic cruise, each woman is a formidable femme fatale, breaking the hearts of feckless men with a wiggle in her walk and a song on her lips.
- 11. Whoopi Goldberg, Maggie Smith, Kathy Najimy, Wendy Makkena, and Mary Wickes, “Sister Act” (1992
Goldberg was at the height of her popularity when she starred in this smash about a lounge singer on the lam who hides out in a convent and turns its drab choir into a Motown-fueled powerhouse. It’s mostly Goldberg’s show, but she gets reliable support from the ever-vinegary Smith and the irrepressibly perky Najimy (in her starmaking role). Besides, singing, dancing nuns are never not funny.
- 10. Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, and Diane Keaton, “The First Wives Club” (1996)
Old pros Midler, Hawn, and Keaton team up to wreak comic vengeance on the feckless husbands who deserted them and the young hussies for whom the husbands traded them in. Hawn, in particular, is a hoot, sending up her own curiously ageless appearance.
- 9. Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths, “Muriel’s Wedding” (1994)
Aussie actresses Collette and Griffiths became international stars with their performances as two ABBA-loving misfits who show up their snooty high school tormentors, run away from home, and begin to blossom, only to get stomped on by reality. There’s a lot of surprisingly dark elements under the movie’s frothy-meringue surface, but Colette in particular is a force of nature whose willingness to look ridiculous keeps the comedy from fizzing out.
- 8. Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Amanda Seyfried, Lacey Chabert, “Mean Girls” (2004)
Why do we still care about Lindsay Lohan? Because once upon a time, she was capable of turning out smart, stylish comedy work like her performance in this Tina Fey-scripted high school comedy. Plus, you have to give it up for the Plastics, including McAdams as evil queen Regina (a starmaking performance whose comic brio she’s never approached again) and Seyfried as wide-eyed ditz Karen (ditto). Oh, and note to Chabert’s Gretchen: Stop trying to make “fetch” happen. It’s not going to happen.
- 7. Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton, “Nine to Five” (1980)
Tomlin is the comic glue holding together straight-woman Fonda and scene-stealer Parton in this template for the modern female buddy comedy. Bonus points to Parton for writing and singing a catchy theme song that captures the antic mood of this workplace-revenge farce.
- 6. Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis, and Cynthia Nixon, “Sex and the City” (2008) and “Sex and the City 2″ (2010)
The cosmo-swilling HBO gals’ first reunion was a surprisingly somber affair, but the second one, which sent them all the way to Abu Dhabi, was the kind of fizzy adventure they used to have, writ large. As usual, Samantha’s (Cattrall) brazenness makes for the wackiest shenanigans. Moms Miranda (Nixon) and Charlotte (Davis) enjoy a rare moment of drunken bonding over parenting gripes. Mostly, this is just a vicarious vacation among very familiar friends.
- 5. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, “Baby Mama” (2008)
Fey and Poehler are always a winning combo, whether at the “Saturday Night Live” news desk, the Golden Globes podium, or in this satire about an unmarried, uptight businesswoman (Fey) and her wacky, mischievous, pregnant surrogate. By the way, you know Melissa McCarthy’s infamous bathroom sink scene in “Bridesmaids”? Let’s give Poehler proper credit for going there first.
- 4. Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, Ann Miller, Gail Patrick, and Andrea Leeds, “Stage Door” (1937)
The original female buddy comedy was this look at an all-female rooming house full of aspiring Broadway actresses. Starchy Hepburn spars memorably with wry Rogers. They’re ably supported by future TV comedy icons Arden and Ball. Some dark dramatic moments late in the film remind you what talented actresses these stars actually were, but mostly, it’s about the sisterly moral support, usually in the form of a worldly wisecrack.
- 3. Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow, “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” (1997)
Sorvino and Kudrow are both priceless as the sole members of their clique of two, who’ve traveled from high school dorks to Los Angeles fashionistas without ever letting a negative or hostile thought penetrate their helmets of blond hair. For much of the movie, it’s just the two of them on the road, which is fine because they’re such delightful company that they’re all you need, and it doesn’t matter which one is the Mary and which one the Rhoda.
- 2. Alicia Silverstone, Stacey Dash, and Brittany Murphy, “Clueless” (1995)
Cher (Silverstone) and Dionne (Dash) rule their posh high school like benevolent despots; making over Tai (Murphy) into one of them is their idea of volunteer work. Sure, this beloved update of Jane Austen’s “Emma” covers a lot of ground (shopping, boys, shopping), but at heart is the friendship among these three, even as they jockey for queen-bee status.
- 1, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Ellie Kemper, and Wendi McLendon-Covey, “Bridesmaids” (2011)
It’s mostly Wiig’s show, but everyone gets a chance to shine. (Of course, the Oscar-nominated McCarthy took her chance, ran it all the way for a touchdown, and spiked it in the end zone.) As a sextet, they make for an uneasy group of friends, but remember this: men and careers may come and go, but these six will always have the experience of horrifying food poisoning and its queasy consequences to bond them for the rest of their lives.
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