The Baxter: Lost comedy gold

POSSIBLE SPOILERS! BEWARE!!! Etc.

The Baxter is written by, directed by, and stars Michael Showalter, star of Comedy Central’s Stella, and writer for Wet Hot American summer and a little thing that used to be on TV maybe you heard of it called the State. Many of the usual suspects from all of these (as well as much of the cast of Supertroopers) appear in this movie (Michael Ian Black as a scantily clad Bad Advice Guy-type friend, Elizabeth Banks (from WHAS) as his inane fiancée, and the genius Paul Rudd in an incredible cameo as Michelle Williams’ “cool” boyfriend.) This review as quick proportion—WHAS : 80s Camp Movies (Meatballs etc) :: Baxter : 80s Romantic Comedies. If you like this kind of absurdist humor, you will like this movie.

The best thing about it is its inventive premise. Showalter plays what he calls “A Baxter”—the guy in the movie whom the confused heroine almost marries before the studly hero rescues her. His name is in fact, Elliot. He’s boring, risk-averse, and nerdy. This might be annoying if it wasn’t so over-the-top and filled with awkward nonsense. For instance, he asks what his girlfriend and the wedding planner (played as a gay dwarf by Peter Dinklage from Station Agent) if they want drinks, “Coffee, tea, orange juice, apple juice…” She asks for tea and Dinklage says “Apple Juice would be grrrand” He returns with three glasses of water which they all sip nonchalantly, but with confused looks. The movie is filled with moments of awkward surrealism like this, much as Stella is (but without trying too hard as Stella does sometimes). The writing is always playing with the kind of pitch-dependent dialogue where neither character realizes how idiotic or bizarre they sound while the conversation just goes right on past.

Plot: Showalter is about to get married when his fiancées ex shows up and he’s afraid he’ll get Baxtered again (he’s been ditched many times, all in hilarious send-ups of the finales of various 80s movies). Complicating this is his new friendship with the equally awkward and staid Michelle Williams who continues her predilection for starring in very good movies despite having no neck to speak of. He vacillates between both women, though he clearly was meant to be with Michelle. The ex boyfriend (Justin Theroux doing an Owen-Wilson-from-the-Fockers impression) complicates this more by being a sensitive One-Upping geode-discovering millionaire. Awkwardly humorous hijinx (and cameos) abound.

Another great trope is the way the narrative progresses. It starts at the end, then goes back several times, since clearly the Baxter is awful at telling a story. Often the action will skip ahead right in the middle of a scene and we’ll see the Baxter doing something else…someone will ask him a question like, “How did it go last night?” and he’ll say, “Well…” and proceed with the tale. The effect is more atmospheric than anything else, and allows for some great surprises and joke set-ups. In the aforementioned scene with the wife and wedding planner they show up as Williams is sleeping over on the pullout sofa at Showalter’s apartment. It flashes back to him trying to hide her in the covers of his bed, somehow he ends up wearing her underwear, and the scene quickly devolves from social farce to total parody of the slapstick cliché as Williams is basically in plain sight during an ensuing argument.

There are some dull moments as the film tries to make itself into an actual romantic comedy, (unlike WHAS which didn’t really give a crap)…but this is standard, and may even be appealing to those who aren’t cold-hearted cynics. There is, thankfully, little gross-out dog-humping humor here. Despite the slapstick, the director likes these characters, and we’re rooting for them to be happy, (even the cool ones) which is a fantastic attitude in a straight-forward romance as much as it is in a time-bending send-up of the genre. This is hopefully one in a long series of movies by these folks that goes beyond either simple pratfalls or irony or Python-ish silliness to a new kind of comedy.

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