Is Paula Patton America’s Next Rom-Com Queen?

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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 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.

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