Opens Fri Sept 16
For those familiar with his resume, the idea of Michael Showalter—a prominent member of sketch comedy troupes Stella and the State—writing, directing, and starring in a feature-length romantic comedy seems like a rather exciting prospect. Sure, the premise seems a little contrived: Showalter plays Elliot Sherman, an accountant attempting to defy his lifelong streak as a "Baxter"—the sort of luckless nice guy who's always dramatically upstaged in romantic comedies—by holding on to his beautiful, rich fiancé against all odds. I know, I know—but with a supporting cast that includes a 40-Year-Old Virgin-fresh Paul Rudd, as well as the requisite support from much of the State/Stella collective, a little bit of romantic comedy banality would be largely excusable, right? Problem is, the only thing that's particularly surprising about The Baxter is its utter mediocrity—as Showalter trades in almost all of his trademark absurdism for palatable, lackluster date fodder.
Purporting to be conceived as a modernization of Howard Hawks-style classics, The Baxter's failure is especially felt because of its obvious potential: Tucked away in its more thoughtful corners are the seeds of a charming, idiosyncratic romantic comedy that Showalter never seems fully able to commit to. Instead, these moments of unusual sweetness (largely provided by the film's primary love interest, played by Michelle Williams) come off like awkward affectations in a film already brimming with them—as Showalter costs his lead character any likeability by refusing to move beyond his quirks. Our Baxter isn't so much a reliably lovable loser as he is a neurotic, uninteresting one, whose appeal to both of his would-be love interests is completely unsubstantiated. By the end, we're hardly sympathetic as the chiseled, cartoonishly sensitive lout (well-played by Justin Theroux) eventually runs off with his would-be fiancé—I mean, why wouldn't she?
But as I said, The Baxter isn't a total failure—there are a number of solid performances and a few jokes that hit, in spite of themselves. For a comedic talent of Showalter's caliber, The Baxter's failure feels less like an intentional departure, and more like hapless pandering—an attempt at a more mainstream audience that he seems unlikely to be able to cater to. Next time, try not to settle.