Back in the mid-'90s, when MTV still flirted with (intentional) comedy shows, it ran one called The State, which featured performers who now appear on the Comedy Central hit Reno 911. There wasn't all that much worth remembering about The State, but the show did make one significant attempt at a recurring SNL-style character, a whiny teenage rebel named Doug, whose catch phrase was "I'm outta heeeeeeere!"
Of all the ex-MTV employees from that era, who would have picked that guy to be the writer, director and star of his own feature in 2005? Looking back, someone like Jesse Camp or Kennedy would be a surer bet for big-screen crossover. Yet here's Michael Showalter, the former Doug, with his very own romantic comedy, The Baxter.
The premise of his movie is a good one. Take the romantic-comedy archetype of the guy-who-isn't-the-hero (usually played by Bill Pullman or Bill Paxton). You know, the one who gets dumped at the altar at the last second when the hero comes running in and makes his honest declaration of love to the heroine. This kind of guy isn't even especially mad when such a thing happens, because he knows the girl is wrong for him anyway and would just be settling, rather than following her heart, if she stayed. This is the sort of guy, Showalter explains, who his grandmother dubbed a "Baxter," and the story at hand, finally, is a movie about that guy.
Showalter plays an accountant named Elliot, who's nice but not especially interesting -- his most unique quirk is that he's currently reading the dictionary as if it were a novel. A cute young temp named Cecil (Michelle Williams) shares his quirk, but before any sparks can fly there, a stunning blonde client by the name of Caroline (Elizabeth Banks) walks in and is inexplicably smitten with Elliot, who's a friend of her father's. Time quickly passes, and soon Elliot and Caroline are engaged to be married.
But Elliot is nervous, as anyone with his track record would be. In a series of flashbacks, we see him in high school, college, and post-grad life, every time with a hot girl, and every time interrupted by the hunk who's just had a change of heart and makes an impassioned speech to win the girl over. This is the film's best sequence, allowing Showalter to spoof each of the three major subcategories of rom-com.
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Sure enough, the wedding plans are thrown into disarray with the sudden appearance of Bradley (Justin Theroux), a dark and brooding hunk of a scientist specializing in geodes, who's man enough that he isn't afraid to cry . . . all the time. He's also the former love of Caroline's life, and even though he has a new girlfriend, he quickly insinuates his way back into Caroline's consciousness, much to the dismay of Elliot, who knows he can't win if it comes down to a contest between them.
Not that he should really be looking to win -- Caroline's a screechy handful, and the more demure Cecil a far better choice. Unfortunately, she has a boyfriend (Paul Rudd), albeit one who isn't very supportive of her middling singing career. Known for being the blonde bombshell on Dawson's Creek, Williams dolls down to the level of modest cutie very well, and without having to resort to wearing glasses.
Is it funny? The Baxter, much like previous Showalter projects The State and Wet Hot American Summer, is kind of amusing, never hilarious, and has maybe one or two unexpected laughs. Showalter looks and acts like an alien who has 95 percent of human behavior down pat, but hasn't quite made it to total assimilation. The same seems to be true of his sense of humor. In theory, he has ideas that should make people laugh. The execution, on the other hand, is not what it should be. Former State colleagues Michael Ian Black and David Wain show up for an assist, but only Wain is actually funny, deadpanning inappropriate dinner-table conversation topics like "I hear bears can smell menstrual blood from a mile away." Black wears women's underwear, which isn't especially amusing nowadays. The movie should have gone more absurd or more real; instead, it hedges its bets too much.
So while it may be easy to relate to Elliot's situation, it's hard to relate to Elliot himself, since he's really quite boring. The Baxter is one rare instance of an indie movie that you actually hope a major studio will rip off someday. Just once, it might do a better job.