Michael Showalter, the writer/director and star of the new film The Baxter, has made his career on delivering some the best absurdist humor of the past 10 years. From his early days as part of MTV’s The State on to his current run with David Wain and Michael Ian Black as part of Comedy Central’s Stella series, there has always been an undercurrent of amoral detachment and irreverence to balance out the human element in everything Showalter has been involved with.
But with time comes the inevitable ultimatum of evolving and dealing with the awkwardness of maturing, or staying stagnant and dying off slowly through repetition. With The Baxter, Showalter chooses the former, and experiences many of the pains that go along with it.
The Baxter is the story of Elliot Sherman (Showalter), a lovable but dull accountant living in Brooklyn who meets and becomes engaged to a gorgeous magazine editor named Caroline (Elizabeth Banks).
Despite how incompatible they may seem to everyone else, Elliot and Caroline are moving happily along their way to marriage. Happily, that is, until Caroline’s ex-high-school sweetheart, the free-spirited Bradley (Justin Theroux) returns to the picture weeks before the wedding.
Seeing the natural connection between Caroline and Bradley and realizing just how much is missing in his own relationship with Caroline, Elliot panics and seeks out advice on how to win Caroline over for good.
In Elliot’s search for a connection with Caroline, he accidentally stumbles upon one with temp-secretary Cecil Williams, played to perfection by the ever-adorable Michelle Williams of Dawson’s Creek fame.
Though The Baxter is better than most romantic comedies being pumped on a bi-weekly basis, it still falls short of the standards Showalter has set for himself with prior works, including the must-own summer camp parody Wet Hot American Summer, in which Showalter plays a lovable loser character similar to that of Elliot Sherman.
One of The Baxter’s biggest pitfalls is the lack of comedic characters for the straight-laced Elliot to play off of. As Elliot’s neighbor Ed, Michael Ian Black steals every scene he’s in, even when standing out of focus in the background, but is still criminally underutilized throughout the film.
Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent) is similarly entertaining as wedding planner Benson Hedges, but suffers from an even greater lack of screen time than Ian Black. Much like the story of the film itself, The Baxter shows Showalter and his audience going in two different directions, which could leave Showalter just as stranded as Elliot Sherman.
Slade Bracey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.