Tomatometer Rating = 33%
I've watched Stella, I've seen Michael and Michael Have Issues, I managed to track down Wet Hot American Summer, I've heard stand-up bits from Michael Showalter as well as just recently his in-depth appearance on Marc Maron's WTF Podcast and yet I still don't think I have a remote handle on him, his comedic persona or his sense of humor (and that extends more broadly to the Stella crew of Michael Ian Black and David Wain as well). So with Show's big one-man-effort, The Baxter I had different expectations at different times for the film, although I'd let it languish in my DVD binder for at least two years since finding it in a DVD bargain bin at a grocery store.
It was the discussion of the film on Maron's podcast that finally pushed me to watch it, still unsure of what I was getting into. In advance I knew that a "Baxter" was the film's parlance for the-guy-who-almost-but-not-quite-gets-the-girl. I was expecting a bit of a meta comedy wherein Show's genial accountant character keeps getting women scooped out from under him by romantic, adventurous leading men in increasingly wildly improbable scenarios. It came as both an enjoyable surprise and disappointment that The Baxter doesn't play things this broadly, and also is far more self aware.
I say it's disappointing mainly because it is a pretty delicious conceit for a broad romantic comedy and given how shrewdly meta Stella was, I was quite sure Showalter could pull it off, if not quite give it that big hit comedy feel on such a small budget. But at the same time, it was quite refreshing to have my expectations dashed only to find an extremely warm and rewarding romantic comedy waiting in the wings.
I have a soft spot for well-made (and even not-so-well-made) RomComs, and while The Baxter is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, it is quaintly charming throughout, with the characters frequently defying their stereotypes but more for the purpose of further humanizing them rather than for comedy.
The cast is solid throughout, starting with Showalter in the lead. Though he disparages his acting ability on Maron's podcast and questions his decision to man the lead role (as well as write and direct), he brings to the role everything it needs. There's a natural vulnerability to his character, a cautiousness and pleasantness that the role demands, and equally a lack of adventurousness and overt masculinity. He's the boring guy that the lead actress of a RomCom shouldn't wind up with, and he delivers the role perfectly, and it's his strength in the role that makes the other extremely minor Baxters he associates with easy to identify without having to elaborate.
Elizabeth Banks, not yet the cinematic juggernaut, is the first romantic foil here, as Showalter's preening fiancee. Though she's actually really quite down-to-earth and suitable for him in some respects, she also adopts a bit of the bridezilla irrationality and seems to want something more even if she's not actively looking for it.
Enter Justin Theroux, her ex-boyfriend from high school. Now a millionaire geologist living abroad, he's never gotten over his high school sweet and while he is the comic foil to Showalter's character, he never rises up to the level of nemesis. Showalter's character is far too understanding of both of their situations.
Finally, there's Michelle Williams, the other romantic foil, the female Baxter if you will, and more appropriately the appropriate match for Showalter's character, down to the whole "reading the dictionary" thing. Of all the actors in the film, it's Williams alone injecting the passion, though Showalter plays off of this nicely, trying to remain the gentleman and stuff the arising passion back down deep. It's obvious from the start that they're supposed to be together, but you wouldn't have a movie if that's how it played out. The twists in how the two come together work organically as opposed to being twisty.
I appreciate how Showalter's script is quite old fashioned, sexless even, with the ultimate point being the comfort doesn't always equal happiness. Showalter's direction as well goes beyond functional and even gets quite artistic at times. There's a table conversation set in a red-lamp lit lounge that is really quite stunning, like out of an early Mike Nichols film.
Showalter proves himself knowledgeable of tropes, exploiting the RomCom genre's cliches in such a way that he defies them and honors them at the same time, extracting the both grounded and cinematic moments from such well worn ideas. He may be right in that he could have had a financially rewarding and marketable hit on his hand with a bigger name or bankable star in the lead role, but The Baxter is a success throughout, although very much a Baxter itself, losing out to the Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd films of the world.