Judge David Johnson wants to warn you: this is not a Lifetime special starring Meredith Baxter-Birney about the life of Meredith Baxter-Birney.
A romantic comedy for anyone who's ever been dumped.
Michael Showalter, former cast member of MTV's The State and co-creator of the series Stella writes and directs the chronicle of perennial loser-in-love Elliot Sherman and his quest to find himself a girlfriend who won't drop him at the sight of her long-lost love…which happens all too often in his life.
Facts of the Case
Elliot Sherman (Showalter) is your typical low-on-the-food-chain schmo: he's awkward, pale, out of touch with what's hip, and an accountant. Plus he has the unenviable position of being "a Baxter." What's a Baxter? He's that over-achieving guy who the good-looking girl leaves for the stud making the grand romantic gesture in all those Meg Ryan movies.
Elliot has a history of being a Baxter (a term his mother coined); high school, college, business school, it was all the same. Some macho homeboy would swoop in and pilfer Elliot's girlfriend, as he watched helplessly from the sidelines while they went on to live happily ever after.
Today, Elliot is embroiled in another romance with a pretty blonde girl—who may just be out of his league—named Caroline (Elizabeth Banks, Wet Hot American Summer). But so far so good; they've dated, hit it off, and she's accepted his marriage proposal. The finish line is ahead for Elliot, and he's never been closer to securing a bride.
That is until Bradley (Justin Theroux) shows up. Bradley is Caroline's high school sweetheart, a filthy-rich geode scientist, and all-around top-shelf cool dude. Suddenly, Elliot's destiny is heading toward familiar territory, and, despite the advice from his best friend Ed (Michael Ian Black), his Baxter status seems once again a done deal. But there's a new player in Elliot's game: Cecil (Michelle Williams, Dawson's Creek) the quiet, eccentric secretary, flush with romantic advice, and harboring feelings for the lovable loser.
How can this possibly end?
In case you didn't pick up on my subtle sarcasm in that last sentence, let me just spell it out for you: The Baxter is predictable. Heck, I defy you not to call the ending of this flick after the first five minutes. But show me twenty romantic comedies and I'll show you twenty with predictable endings. The Baxter is an uneven, though entertaining, little film that should please most fans of the genre.
I was actually anticipating more of a knock-out from this flick. Written and directed by Showalter, one of the minds behind The State (a series I am cuckoo for Coca Puffs over), The Baxter boasted a few pockets of comic brilliance, but just couldn't stretch it out to the goal line.
The premise of the film is great. Basically, it's a romantic comedy told from the loser's side of other romantic comedies. We see the story of the guy who is left at the altar while his dream girl runs off to be with her dream guy. The jokes relating to this twist are where the brilliance comes in.
Showalter has a great deal of fun lampooning the trademark confessions of melodramatic love in romance films. Elliot's high school prom has him missing the chance to dance with the girl with the broken leg; he is beaten to the punch by a more courageous guy. Then there's college, where the big jock on campus publicly confesses his love for Elliot's girlfriend, convincing the student body to cancel the Big Game and instead support her at her recital for Julliard. And of course, you've got the big, dramatic, wedding run-in, which opens the film. That's some funny stuff, and it culminates in a great last joke.
The film is at its best when it plays off this theme. Bradley, Elliot's latest foe, is so beyond perfect that you know there's no chance Elliot can stand up against him. The guy has the looks, the sensitivity, and the moolah, and he's really not a jerk. It's hard to root against him. This is another interesting twist Showalter put in the film: Elliot isn't 100% victim and his competitors aren't 100% jerks; the guy is definitely a loser, and he makes some stupid decisions. In fact, his romantic troubles are more the product of his own screw-ups and less the intrusion of an old boyfriend.
The Baxter struggled when it fell into the tired trappings of romantic comedies—a painful irony, seeing as it is sharpest when it harpoons those very conceits. For example, there's an extended sequence where Caroline stops over with the wedding planner (Peter Dinklage); too bad Cecil had spent the night on Elliot's couch, and now there's going to be an awkward confrontation, and she needs to hide under the bed, and—uh-oh! Caroline is going into the bedroom! Oh no! It's a contrived, unfunny set-up, and worse, becomes a pivotal moment in the story, which cheapens the narrative.
Not to pile on, but seeing as I'm in the part of the review where I piss and moan, I have to talk about Showalter's performance as Elliot. He missed what he was going for, which was sort of a loveable nerd. His Elliot is so awkward and goofy, it counters what the film is trying to do with him. Basically, I never could see why Caroline—or Cecil for that matter—would be interested in this guy in the first place. Simply put, Elliot is not that likeable.
Everyone else does pretty well, making Showalter's missteps all the more striking. Michelle Williams plays her charming loser the way Elliot should have been portrayed, and some really funny cameos by Paul Rudd and State-alum David Wain exponentially increase the laugh count.
The Baxter is a moderately above-average romantic comedy, benefiting immensely from a few inspired moments and the overall premise. Showalter's misfire with Elliot and dull, unfunny, clichéd moments hurt what could have been a real gem.
Technically, everything looks and sounds fine. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is satisfactory and the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix does what it has to do. A few bloopers are it for extras.
The Baxter scores points for really good ideas, but the execution falls short of putting this film on the map. However, guys, if the little lady is intent on catching a chick flick, you could do a lot worse.
I'll hand down the not guilty ruling, but I wish I could be more excited about it.
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