A “Baxter” is a nice, safe, milquetoast guy women settle for when bosom-heaving romance no longer seems attainable, a description that might also apply to writer-director-star Michael Showalter’s The Baxter itself, a skewed-perspective screwball comedy which is cute, dependably amusing, and yet so docile and unthreatening that it’s unlikely to raise anyone’s temperature. Elliot Sherman (Showalter) is a prototypical Baxter, an uncool, passionless CPA whose inability to act proactively has repeatedly cost him girlfriends. After beginning with Sherman’s doomed wedding to out-of-his-league magazine editor Caroline (Elizabeth Banks), Showalter’s film flashes back one and a half years earlier to elucidate the pre-matrimony complications caused by the appearance of Elizabeth’s hunky, sensitive high school boyfriend Bradley (Justin Theroux), as well as Elliot’s burgeoning relationship with a bookish temp secretary named Cecil (Michelle Williams) who shares his interest in reading the dictionary (the two bond over the term “gromwell”).
Similar to the Showalter-scripted Wet Hot American Summer and Comedy Central’s Stella—starring Showalter and his NYC comedy troupe buddies Michael Ian Black and David Wain, both of whom also briefly appear here—The Baxter is something of a deconstructionist genre exercise that inserts random, inappropriate jokes into a story that subtly plays around with traditional narrative conventions. Taking the viewpoint of the guy who doesn’t (initially) get the girl, the film functions like a topsy-turvy Howard Hawks lark, and Showalter’s self-conscious performance (composed of clumsy bumbling, face-scrunching perplexity and wide-eyed surprise) has a goofy playfulness that slyly pokes fun at the ridiculously intricate romantic entanglements of screwball comedies. Yet the film’s central conceit is handled so softly and with such earnest sappiness that, more often than not, no room is left for the filmmaker’s peculiar brand of out-and-out ribald absurdity.
With the exception of Bradley concluding a nostalgic story with the under-his-breath comment, “…and then I slipped you my big, fat cock,” and Wain’s Louis remarking during a fancy-pants dinner with his WASP-y relatives that “I hear bears can smell menstrual blood from a mile away,” Showalter’s script is a rather sterile, syrupy, and straightforward endeavor. Disregarding nearly every opportunity for off-color humor—most notably with regards to Black and his outfits of wife-beaters and designer briefs—the film instead repeatedly favors tepid palm pilot and wedding decoration gags, wink-wink inside jokes for Stella aficionados (involving the identity of the show’s namesake), and rote will-they-or-won’t-they courtship shenanigans between Sherman and obvious soulmate Cecil. The Baxter ends on a touchingly wistful note, which implies that for every love story—even one about a nerdy loser like Elliot—there’s always a Baxter being left behind in heartbroken misery. The primarily sad thing about Showalter’s genial film, however, is that it ultimately chooses to embrace, rather than transcend via zany bawdiness, the schmaltzy genre within which it’s operating.