Anyone who's seen a few romantic comedies, the older the better, will find something to like about The Baxter, a genial but slight parody of rom-coms that itself functions as a surprisingly conventional romance. TV's The State alum Michael Showalter, who's also on Comedy Central's Stella and co-wrote the cult classic Wet Hot American Summer, writes, directs and stars as Elliot Sherman, a schlubby accountant who becomes the unlikely recipient of romantic attention from the beautiful and sophisticated Caroline Swann (Elizabeth Banks). The film opens at their wedding as Caroline's high-school boyfriend, Bradley (Justin Theroux), bursts in and declares his love for her, just like in the ending of The Graduate and countless other romantic classics (and not-so-classics).
Thus Elliot is what he calls a Baxter, the milquetoast guy in romantic comedies who gets tossed aside in favor of the bold, dashing hero. In a series of flashbacks, we see Elliot's Baxter existence on the sidelines of Caroline and Bradley's growing infatuation, even as he does a romantic tango with office temp Cecil Mills (Michelle Williams). Although Elliot ends up on the wrong end of Caroline and Bradley's rom-com story line, his relationship with Cecil follows all of the same rules, with Elliot as the leading man (a point that's amusingly made in a post-credits coda). The Baxter manages, then, to have it both ways, parodying romantic comedies while giving in wholeheartedly to all of their tropes.
Unlike Wet Hot American Summer, which was a manic, bizarre parody of '80s teen-sex comedies, The Baxter follows a mostly straight line in its story, and its humor is much more gentle. The film most likely will make young viewers think of Meg Ryan and Reese Witherspoon movies, but Showalter is just as inspired (if not more so) by old Howard Hawks screwball comedies and Billy Wilder's The Apartment (Williams has the same haircut and fashion sense as Shirley MacLaine in Wilder's classic). Although it takes place in the present, The Baxter has a certain timeless, classic feel about it, even in its more off-the-wall moments.
Showalter's aspiration to timelessness often robs his film of stronger laughs and his Elliot, though sympathetic, is more than a little off-putting. Showalter plays his hero with a perpetual deer-in-the-headlights expression that quickly grows tiresome, but he's redeemed by Williams, perfectly fussy and sassy and impossible not to fall for. She's every Baxter's dream.