Michael Showalter as Elliot Sherman
Elizabeth Banks as Caroline Swann
Michelle Williams as Cecil Mills
Justin Theroux as Bradley Lake
Zak Orth as Wendall
Michael Ian Black as Ed
Catherine Lloyd Burns as Stella
Abby Wathen as Kimberly
Peter Dinklage as Benson
Melisa McGregor as Lilly
Paul Rudd as Dan
Although it’s not nearly as fall-over funny as Wet Hot American Summer, Michael Showalter’s first solo venture is a sweet and often amusing romantic comedy with a premise that’s fairly universal.
Tax accountant Elliot Sherman (Showalter) may be the biggest nerd in the world, but somehow, he lucks into finding the perfect girl in Caroline Swann (Elizabeth Banks). As they get closer to their wedding day, they hit a bump in the road when Caroline’s perfect ex-boyfriend Bradley (Justin Theroux) shows up and threatens to destroy Elliot’s perfect world. Elliot also keeps running into quirky office temp Cecil Mills (Michelle Williams), who shares his nerdy hobbies, setting things in motion for a series of comic mishaps.
First things first. Most people reading this or seeing this new comedy written and directed by Michael Showalter of the comedy groups “The State” and “Stella, will immediately want to know exactly what a “Baxter” is. Fortunately, the termdon’t bother looking in Webster’s Dictionary; it’s made upis defined as the “wrong guy”, the one that women end up marrying when they can’t be with the ones they truly love. He’s the loser who never gets the happy ending in romance movies.
In the case of our film’s hero Elliot Sherman, he doesn’t even get a happy beginning. The film opens with him being left at the altar by his gorgeous fiancé Caroline, before we’re taken back to the first day they met to reveal where things may have gone wrong. Coincidentally, that’s the same day the tragically unhip tax accountant meets his new temp Cecil Mills, a nice but flaky newcomer to New York. Before they get a chance to talk about their mutual hobbies, the beautiful Caroline Swann shows up to get tax help from Elliot, something clicks and they’re off on their own romantic journey. That is, until Elliot learns that Caroline has a secret ex-boyfriend, Bradley, who conveniently shows up on cue.
Although the premise of “a romantic comedy for anyone who’s been dumped” sounds promising, the story set-up doesn’t immediately grab you. It takes some time to get used to the deliberately dry and stiff delivery of the dialogue with every word enunciated clearly and slowly in a way that makes the character seem as if they’re reading cue cards. It’s not immediately evident why this is the case until you realize that Showalter chose this method to replicate the tone and feel of old-time romantic comedies like those made in Hollywood in the ’50s and ’60s or Woody Allen’s more recent New York based variety. The humor is far subtler than anything in Wet Hot American Summer and for the most part, it’s lighter on the laughs than some may expect. Instead, the humor is found in the situations rather than actual jokes or gags, so in many ways, the movie is more of a romance, but with quirkier and more interesting characters.
Elliot isn’t much of a departure for Showalter after playing a similar loser in Wet Hot American Summer, which he co-wrote. Elliot’s about as uncool as they come without ever realizing it, and he has the kind of personality that can grate on the nerves. Although he’s a schlub, he’s a likeable and relatively harmless schlub, and when Justin Theroux’s Bradley enters the picture, you realize that Elliot may be the lesser of two evils. Despite knowing the outcome of this love triangle from the opening scene, you can’t help but root for him, although from the second they meet, it’s obvious that Cecil is a far better match for Elliot.
For his first feature, Showalter surrounds himself with a solid supporting cast including Elizabeth Banks of The 40-Year-Old Virgin as his way-too-perfect love interest and Michelle Williams showing off her comedic skills at playing the “second choice.” There’s something sweet and charming about the forced chemistry between Showalter and Michelle Williams’ Cecil Mills, which makes their awkward relationship more believable than his romance with Caroline, and it allows for some fun moments between the two.
The biggest surprise comes from Justin Theroux as Elliot’s competition, who takes an uncharacteristic comic turn as he tries to show Elliot up and make him look bad in front of Caroline. Theroux takes his character so far to make him seem like the perfect boyfriend that you can’t help but hate him the more for it. The best comparison in the relationship might be that of Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson in Meet the Parents and the film really hits its pace once the two of them face off for Caroline’s attention.
Showalter’s “Stella” partners Michael Ian Black and David Wain also make brief appearances with Black spending most of his scenes in his underwear or arguing with his wife, but still, it’s Peter Dinklage, as always, who steals the movie as gay wedding planner Benson Hedges. It’s not a very original movie stereotype, but Dinklage does so much more with the character.
Overall, The Baxter is a competent first film from Showalter which throws out more than a few surprises. After all, how often are you told how the story ends in the very first scene in the movie but still want to know where things go? (And no, Memento doesn’t count.)
The Bottom Line:
Anyone looking for an old-school romantic comedy that doesn’t resort to sex and swearing to get its laughs should appreciate what Michael Showalter and his wonderful cast have achieved with this sweet and quirky film.
The Baxter opens in New York on August 26, in Los Angeles on September 2, and elsewhere after that.