The Baxter

on August 26, 2005 by Sheri Linden
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In his feature debut as writer-director, actor Michael Showalter ("Wet Hot American Summer") follows the characters usually left behind in romantic comedy, subverting the genre's rules while playing by them -- the kind of cinematic mission that requires far more incisiveness and control than evidenced here. Allusions to '40s screwball and later offerings like "Annie Hall" have a mild resonance as "The Baxter" struggles to get its footing. When it works, the film delivers some nicely judged comic moments, and it finds its old-fashioned heart in Michelle Williams' lovely performance. Showalter's starting point is that staple of movie romance, the wedding that shouldn't be, interrupted in the nick of time by the bride's true soul mate. The title is a generic term for the kind of guy who's dumped at the altar -- nice and steady, averse to risk, the sort who uses words like "tipsy" without irony. In this case he's New York CPA Elliot (Showalter), unlikely fianc├ę of WASP princess Caroline (Elizabeth Banks, who also played a New York bride-to-be in "Heights"). Showalter overdoes Elliot's plodding sincerity, and it's hard to grasp what status-conscious Caroline sees in the ├╝berdork, even given his decency and know-how with the dollar. But judging by her older sister's marriage, the writer-director is making the well-taken point that a certain type of demanding woman will marry a milquetoast because he's malleable and easily controlled.

Indeed, Elliot believes that "compromise is the key to success" -- in stark contrast to high-adventurer Bradley (Justin Theroux), Caroline's high school sweetheart, a geologist who's back on the scene after making a fortune hunting down geodes. Theroux is terrific, all emotional fervency as self-congratulatory posturing (his best scene, alas, might be the second of two closing-credits sequences). He is the anti-Baxter, and Elliot bristles with polite indignation whenever Bradley is around -- and because this is a romantic comedy, he's around more and more frequently. For his part, Elliot, who has lost every girlfriend he's ever had to the Bradleys of the world, finds chaste solace in his friendship with adorably quirky temp secretary Cecil (Williams), a small-town girl trying to make it in the city as a singer-songwriter.

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