Perhaps it’s only just that a movie about a loser should be a loser itself. But whether or not that’s the case, “The Baxter” is.
The picture is written and directed by Michael Showalter, a gawky fellow with a hangdog face who also stars as Elliot Sherman, an uptight accountant acutely conscious of his status as what his grandmother called a baxter–the guy whose life is filled with embarrassments, especially in the romantic department. As his day begins Elliot meets his new temp secretary Cecil (Michelle Williams), a Midwestern transplant quirky enough to be his soulmate, but he’s instead bowled over by a new client, the gorgeous Caroline Swann (Elisabeth Banks), who goes unaccountably gaga over him. It isn’t long before they’re engaged. But the reappearance of her ex-boyfriend Bradley (Justin Theroux) feeds Elliot’s insecurity and exacerbates his natural “baxterism.” And when he turns to Cecil for comfort, their oddball rapport clearly indicates what the outcome of the romantic musical chairs should be. And though there are twists and turns leading to it, the story turns out as it should (though that’s no surprise, given that the close is telegraphed at the very beginning).
There are parts of “The Baxter” that are very winning. The best sequence features Peter Dinklage as a nonplused wedding planner called Benson Hedges. (The joke on his name is a pretty feeble one, to be sure, but it’s about the best the movie has to offer, and Dinklage has great fun being snide and superior.) And Williams adds some charm as the hesitant, winsome Cecil, even though she actually has to perform the old-as-the-hills routine of trying to hide under the covers when she and Elliot are trapped in his apartment by Caroline. On the other hand, Banks is stilted, Theroux gives a performance that’s unbearably arch, and Showalter himself proves no match for other nerdy types who have graced the screen over the decades. More irritating than endearing, in his hands Elliot proves somebody it’s very hard to root for.
“The Baxter” is obviously a low-budget effort, and from a technical perspective it barely makes the professional grade. But one could put up with its shortcomings in design and cinematography if it weren’t for the far more glaring ones in writing, acting and direction. “The Baxter” begins with an injunction from Sherman to the audience: “Imagine that you’re watching one of those old romantic comedies.” It won’t be long into this movie before you’re wishing you actually were.