Writer, director, and star Michael Showalter answers the question of what exactly a “Baxter” is thirty seconds into the film. The “Baxter” is that poor bastard who gets stuck at the altar on his wedding day. He’s the guy that loses his prom date while getting a glass of fruit punch. He’s the perennial nice guy that’s destined to finish last in all matters of love.
Showalter plays the straight-laced, tweed-covered accountant Elliot Sherman. He meets two beautiful women one fateful day at work. Cecil (Michelle Williams) is a shy, straight-of-the-bus temp from Iowa. She fills in for the day because Elliot’s secretary has the flu. Caroline (Elizabeth Banks) is a trendy magazine editor who wants to meet her father’s accountant. Elliot is initially drawn to Cecil, but is captivated by the stunning Caroline and leaves Cecil in the lurch. One year later, Caroline and Elliot are a week from their wedding date. Elliot senses doom when he meets Caroline’s high school boyfriend at a family party. Bradley (Justin Theroux) is a millionaire geologist who turns up after fifteen long years. Elliot refuses to lose his precious Caroline and gets advice from an unlikely source, the introverted Cecile; who just happens to be temping in the building once again.
The Baxter is a very dry, whimsical film. It works because Elliot is such a likeable character. You root for him to succeed, while getting a lot of good chuckles out of his ridiculously proper behavior. Showalter has Elliot narrate the story, so you’re constantly getting his feedback on every situation. Most films would run out of steam relying on this, but The Baxter is able to do it successfully.
My main issue with the movie is that it never explains why someone like Caroline would ever be interested in a guy like Elliot. The film makes it plainly obvious who will end up with whom, but conveniently skips over the entire romance that leads Caroline into an engagement with Elliot. This is a major flaw because Caroline would never want Elliot. Her character is well defined in the film. The sign of a weak script is when a character does something that’s out of character without explanation. Showalter uses the impending marriage as the lynchpin for the story, but completely ignores the relationship behind it.
Michelle Williams notches another good performance in a quirky independent film. She brings a gentle nature to Cecil that really adds feeling to an otherwise dry story. She’s really made a fine career out of playing warm and personable characters in small films. Most actresses are shooting for blockbusters, but she seems to have found her niche and a modicum of success with it.
Summer romantic comedies are usually quite painful to sit through, but The Baxter is a breeze. It doesn’t stand-up to scrutiny, but is as good as any date film I’ve seen this year. Michael Showalter shows promise as a filmmaker and writer. The Baxter is an independent film with a shoestring budget. I think Showalter would have done wonders if he had the financing. His next film will be a real judge of his talent, but The Baxter is certainly a better than average debut.