The Baxter

Studio: IFC Films
ritten and directed by Michael Showalter; Starring: Michael Showalter, Elizabeth Banks, Justin Theroux, and Michelle Williams

Sep 06, 2005 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


(Warning: This review may contain mild spoilers.)


Clearly, something has gone wrong when a romantic comedy is neither romantic nor especially funny. The Baxter, like some of those lesser SNL skits turned feature-length films, is another example of what happens when a movie relies more on a single concept to string us along rather than fleshing out a plot or characters: We figure out the ending long before the third act and, in the meantime, just hope that something gratifying transpires in the remaining minutes—which it doesn’t.


Written, directed by, and starring Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer), The Baxter is his well intentioned attempt to recapture the lighthearted zaniness of Hollywood’s screwball romantic comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, but the sexiness and quick-witted humor of those films are largely absent here. The fault lies in Showalter’s conception of the character he plays in the film, Elliot Sherman, "the Baxter." As Elliot’s obtrusive narration explains at the beginning of the film, a Baxter is a guy who doesn’t get the girl. Not like Bogart inCasablanca or Mitchum in Out of the Past, but like Brian Avery in The GraduateThe Baxter’s opening wedding scene spoofs the climax to The Graduate, with Elliot standing in for Carl Smith (Avery), the groom who is left at the altar when Elaine (Katherine Ross) ditches him for Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman). In the press notes for The Baxter, Showalter cites Bill Pullman’s Walter from Sleepless in Seattle as a textbook Baxter.

The thrust of Showalter’s film is to give this archetype of the romantic comedy his own story, an alternative rendering that is intriguing on the surface, until we remember that Baxters are not underdogs. In movies, they are overshadowed and left behind because they are privileged and dull. And because Elliot—a tax accountant who attended Ivy League schools, loves numbers and claims Monday is his favorite day—is no exception to this construct, Showalter resigns to accentuating Elliot’s defects rather than warming us to his eccentricities or exploring the pathos of his circumstance——Elliot believes it is his fate to remain a Baxter for life. Unlike the more familiar movie nerd, Elliot can attract a girl. His affliction is that he ultimately loses every one of them to another man at untimely moments.

This affliction is why Showalter’s script virtually tosses two young women into Elliot’s lap early in the film. Office temp Cecil Mills (Michelle Williams) and magazine editor Caroline Swann (Elizabeth Banks) conveniently arrive at Elliot’s New York office within minutes of each other and immediately make an impression on him. Elliot initially has his eyes set on Cecil, who has just moved from Minnesota with secret ambitions of being a singer. It turns out that Elliot and Cecil have some mutual interests, including an affection for the dictionary (Elliot refers to the "G" section as a classic). But the more sophisticated Caroline steals Elliot’s attention when she enters the picture. That Elliot and Caroline think they have even more in common is part of the joke, and soon enough they are planning a wedding.

Up until this point, Elliot seemingly can do no wrong. Like a grown-up Eddie Haskell, he knows all the right things to say while visiting Caroline’s parents, who also have been won over by him. In a moment of unsightly self-satisfaction, Elliot smugly boasts to Caroline’s mother how he and the bride-to-be keep no secrets from each other, just before he discovers Caroline’s high school sweetheart Bradley in a photo album. Caroline has never mentioned Bradley to Elliot, which sends Elliot tailspinning into suspicion and self-doubt.

When Elliot confronts Caroline about her man from the past, she brushes it off. But in one of the movie’s funnier moments, Bradley (Justin Theroux) suddenly appears after Caroline assures Elliot that it would take on act of God for her to cross paths with Bradley again. As it happens, Bradley is a millionaire scientist who travels the globe yet also spares some of his valuable time for the elderly, to bask in their wisdom. Elliot senses he is overmatched by Bradley, and in his anxiety, bares his soul to Cecil, who offers him a sympathetic ear. From there a series of follies and misunderstandings jeopardize Elliot and Caroline’s wedding. 

Since the twist of The Baxter centers not on whether Elliot will win the girl’s heart, but whether he’ll lose her, Showalter deprives us of moments that might endear us to Elliot as he tries to prove his love. Where empathy or self-affirmation might be needed, Showalter instead writes in an array of odd characters to make light of Elliot’s despair, and these scenes exploit the reasons why we should worry that he will be dumped. When provoked, Elliot whines in a shrill voice and crinkles his nose to accentuate his beady eyes. He also bobs his head like a chicken, and eerily begins to resemble ESPN’s Mel Kiper toward the end of the film.

In a throwback to the older films that inspired The Baxter, it’s somewhat charming how Elliot and Cecil address each other as Mr. Spencer and Miss Mills. But there is little spark between Showalter and Williams (Dawson’s Creek), and even less between him and Banks (The 40-Year-Old Virgin). Perhaps the most romantically comedic scene lasts only a couple seconds, when Elliot fetches Cecil a pair of pajamas after a long night of commiserating. The sight of him sprinting down his hallway, securing a stack of flannels with two hands, is just the touch of nuance that The Baxter otherwise desperately lacks. 

The rest of the film is caricature upon caricature. Williams is the most grounded as the demure Cecil, but she can’t play it too cogently because, for comedic purposes, she’s a singer handicapped with stage fright. At first, Theroux (Mulholland Drive) gives things a boost as the emotionally erratic Bradley, but he remains too wound up to be a proper foil to Showalter’s Elliot. Peter Dinklage (Living in Oblivion, The Station Agent), who has marvelously broken out of niche roles, here is reduced to another stereotype as a gay wedding planner named Benson Hedges. Michael Ian Black earns some laughs as an offbeat neighbor, but his character is almost entirely irrelevant to the events unfolding. The same can be said for Paul Rudd as Cecil’s goofy boyfriend Dan. It’s strange how The Baxter is being released on the heels of The 40-Year-Old Virgin; as if the two films didn’t share enough already, Banks and Rudd appear in both.

The Baxter was photographed by Tim Orr, who has done splendid work with David Gordon Green (All the Real Girls), but here he seems to have little interest in adding a complementary flair to the New York-Brooklyn setting. The romantic comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s employed stage design and blocking to great comedic effect, but when The Baxter’s pinnacle moment of slapstick occurs in Elliot’s apartment, the camera is handheld and shaky, and the actors have little room to maneuver.

In all, The Baxter is a mess. Showalter wanted to make a sweet movie that bypassed the easy shock and gross-out laughs that have become a staple of romantic comedies ever since the Farrellys got hold of the genre. But with its nonlinear script, sitcom style exterior setups and ironic fringe characters, The Baxter is too aimless to evoke classic Hollywood. 

In fact, an even more fragmented narrative might have served the film better, if only to offset its predictability. There is a sparingly used flashback technique in The Baxter that jolts the proceedings to a freeze-framed halt before filling in intentional plot holes. It’s a nice effect that could have been employed more often to break up the tedium. The Baxter’s best sequence occurs when Elliot recounts the chronological history of his Baxter-hood to Cecil in an elevator. The flashbacks are cued with the opening and closing of the doors, which results in a quick series of humorous cuts on punchline. Inside, Elliot and Cecil make for an anachronistic pair, he looking like John Cleese's take on Sherlock Holmes, and she like Mary Tyler Moore circa 1970. 

The Baxter is unapologetically a pastiche. But in trying tell an untold story, Showalter sadly has given us something we’ve seen countless times before. (www.ifcfilms.com / www.thebaxtermovie.com)

Author rating: 4/10

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Average reader rating: 7/10



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noticery.com
April 13th 2017
9:59am

Is it good for family watching with wife and Kids?
Best regards