"Bill Pullmans of the world-your time of triumph has come at last!"
You’ve seen them in most romantic comedies–the nice normal and predictable boyfriend or girlfriend that needs to be shed, usually at the altar, so that Julia Roberts can run off with Richard Gere–but you never knew quite what to call them, other than schmuck, sap or Bill Pullman. The quirky new comedy “The Baxter” gives those characters both a name and a voice and for anyone who simply couldn’t believe that Tom Hanks would forsake the sprightly and sexy likes of Parker Posey for the fairly unspeakable Meg Ryan in “You’ve Got Mail,” this is the film you have been waiting for.Using a sideline approach not unlike what “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” did with “Hamlet,” the film tells a standard New York-based romantic tale through the eyes of that third wheel, a schmucky self-described “Baxter” named Elliot (writer-director Michael Showalter) who is convinced that his smart, stylish and sexy fiancee (Elisabeth Banks) is destined to leave him because that is what happens to people like him. His fears seem to come true when she runs into her hunky former boyfriend (Justin Theroux) and all seems lost. At the same time, though, he also finds himself attracted to an already-involved Baxterette (Michelle Williams), a development that has the potential to lead to any number of interrupted weddings.<
Fans of cult comedy may recognize Showalter from “Wet Hot American Summer,” a hilarious skewering of early-80's summer-camp films that he co-wrote and appeared in as a Baxter-like character. While nowhere near as raunchy or rambunctious as that film (mostly because the films that inspired this one were never particularly raunchy or rambunctious in the first place), “The Baxter” still gets a lot of laughs from the way that it gently riffs on the formulaic conventions that made millions for the likes of Nora Ephron. The lead actors are all good at straddling the line between characters and caricatures (Williams is especially impressive in the way that she channels the “Apartment”-era Shirley MacLaine) and the film also finds room for hilarious bit roles from the likes of Paul Rudd (as Williams’s amiably rotten boyfriend) and Peter Dinklage (as a wedding planner who figures in the most outlandishly funny sequence–a goof on all those scenes where a hapless guy tries to cover up the presence of another woman in his apartment when the fiancee arrives unexpectedly.) The best thing about the film is its sincerity–it does goof on these films but it is clear that Showalter has a genuine affection for their conventions and that affection always showsNot the bust-a-gut that fans of Showalter’s previous work may be expecting (this is not a film where the DVD will include a supplemental audio track with extra farts a la “Wet Hot American Summer”), “The Baxter” is nevertheless a low-key charmer that provides viewers with a lot of smiles and a few big laughs.