Settling for 'The Baxter'

Ever wondered what happened to the 'other' guy in the romantic comedy, the one who loses the girl, the wrong guy? He's called a Baxter - at least in the parlance of Michael Showalter's current film of the same name and this time it's his turn to tell the story.

Eliot (Michael Showalter, left) faces his wedding planner (Peter Dinklage) and fiance Caroline (Elizabeth Banks).

'The Baxter' is for every would-be groom left stranded at the alter, every man who's watched helplessly as the girl of his dreams locks lips and hips with the leading man. It's the perennial underdog story wrapped up in the polite packaging of the classic 40s and 50s screwball romances right down to the long pajamas and formal salutations with few absurdist touches a la Showalter's sketch comedy group 'Stella' thrown in to help spice things up.

Written and directed by Showalter, 'The Baxter' tells an old-fashioned love story from the perspective of Eliot Sherman, the geeky accountant, the second-choice, the guy who's shy and awkward but still somewhat charming in a quirky and vaguely creepy sort of way. He's sweet and kind and a little obsessive but likeable enough, even the type of guy we might pity and cheer for provided he sticks to his end of bargain by not exceeding the standard scant screen time he's allotted.

The problem? Eliot's not terribly interesting. Nor personable. Nor athletic, romantic, charming beyond the initial five minutes, after which social ineptitude and nervous borderline cowardice cease to pass for charm or even average, for that matter. But he is nice. And safe. Which is what prompts women to briefly settle for him before inevitably moving on to knights in shinier armor, a point Showalter introduces in a montage of milquetoast nice guy finishes i.e. losing the girl and going home alone that brings us up to speed on Eliot's depressing dating history.

Cecil (Michelle Williams), Eliot's salvation from Baxter-hood.

Eliot's latest lost cause is Caroline Swann (Elizabeth Banks), a beautiful, ambitious magazine editor who bustles into his office and life just in time to distract him from Cecil Mills (Michelle Williams), the shy, sweet, somewhat self-conscious office temp who's of course perfect for him, but naturally must first endure a series of near misses and almost kisses; kismet for two people afraid to act. 

Enter Bradley Lake (Justin Theroux), Caroline's long lost high school flame and the epitome of everything she wants in a man he can even break dance. The antithesis of Baxterdom, Bradley jumpstarts Eliot's recurring fears of being dumped yet again, disrupting his nuptial plans with Caroline and pushing him closer to the edge and Cecil, and true love, and happiness.

Showalter is a perfect Baxter, so perfect in fact, that he starts to get annoying midway through the film. With his gawky movements, hapless facial expressions and clipped mannerisms, he's like a more prim and conversationally dysfunctional version of Bill Pullman (who's also no stranger to playing Baxters). Fortunately, Williams' soft spoken charms provide the perfect foil, nudging Eliot without pushing toward the assertiveness that's always eluded him. Williams tempers fresh off the bus naivete with old-fashioned practicality, creating a character that could have stepped straight from the frame of an old Howard Hawks comedy.

The leading man and Baxter enemy #1, Bradley (Justin Theroux).

Theroux takes the traditional leading man conventions and subverts them, stealing his scenes with a nuanced performance that slyly pokes fun at the manipulative narcissism masquerading as confident magnetism and the cry on cue emotionalism of more modern leading men. Peter Dinklage also makes a brief but hilarious appearance as a gay wedding planner, playing pretentious and flamboyant while somehow keeping a straight face.   

Of course, no Showalter effort would be complete without his 'Stella' cohorts David Wain and Michael Ian Black, who pop up for various absurdist comedy bits over the course of the film. Sometimes the setups work, but they just as often tend to wander too far into 'Stella' territory the realm of inside jokes that only seem to make sense to the three men performing them.

Just as he did in 'Wet Hot American Summer,' Showalter displays a flair for putting a new spin on an old genre, and though his first time in the director's chair of a feature lacks the fluidity of the screwball comedies he's riffing on, the abilities of his cast help smooth over the rough spots. Once he gains the confidence to take the same types of adventurous risks behind the camera as he does in his screenplays, Showalter will be a filmmaker to watch. Until then, we'll just have to settle for 'The Baxter.'     

The Baxter opens September 2 in Los Angeles.

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