Film-Forward Review: [THE BAXTER]

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The object of Elliot's affection,
Caroline Swann (Elizabeth Banks)
Photo: IFC

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Directed & Written by: Michael Showalter.
Produced by: Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Galt Niederhoffer, Celine Rattray & Reagan Silber.
Director of Photography: Tim Orr.
Edited by: Jacob Craycroft & Sarah Flack.
Music by: Theodore Shapiro & Craig Wedren.
Released by: IFC.
Country of Origin: USA. 91 min. Rated: PG-13.
With: Michael Showalter, Elizabeth Banks, Justin Theroux & Michelle Williams.

Elliot Sherman is a schmuck - or, as his grandmother has labeled him, a Baxter. These Baxters are the Bill Pullmans of the world, the dullards and the duffers. They are the unaware and the unabashedly boring. They are all Mr. Wrong. Michael Showalter's hilarious new pastiche follows one such mildly lisping man as he confronts a lifetime of being like the banal wrong choice in every Nora Ephron movie. Showalter has made a romantic comedy focused not on the likes of a Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan e-love, but instead on "the other guy," those nebbish men in sweater vests who are allergic to wheat, read the dictionary at night, and have devised a lifestyle out of being rejected by Meg Ryan.

Even though Showalter has inched just a little farther in his attempt to usurp Christopher Guest's cultural seat of power, The Baxter is not in the same league as Wet Hot American Summer (which he co-wrote) or his legendary skit show The State. While critics have been defaming Showalter's new "skitcom" Stella for being both too abstruse and too absurd, The Baxter is bogged down by the reverse - there is too much heart when clearly Showalter's talent is his knack for intelligent non sequitur absurdity. The Baxter puts Showalter's genius writing at a disadvantage since most of his humor is rooted in truly unpredictable situational comedy. A self-conscious romantic comedy is still a romantic comedy; the fact that it's ironic does not make the experience any more enjoyable. Many scenes and jokes drag as a result of this, particularly since romantic comedies have been mocked for so long that even Showalter's critical irony feels predictable.

That said, The Baxter is still hilarious, even if it is pretty light for a Showalter effort. Elliot (Showalter) and Cecil Mills (Michelle Williams) are played with such quirkiness that their awkward flirting puts Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan's "I would buy you a bouquet of sharpened pencils" crap completely out to pasture. Michael Ian Black's role is miniscule in this movie, but as usual he steals every scene he's in. And even though his patented garish jokes are reigned in for accessibility, Showalter and his stock company make a great case for reclaiming the niche humor that Todd Solondz and the Ben Stiller crowd have been molding in the time since Wet Hot American Summer. Zachary Jones
August 26, 2005



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