The Baxter opens with a scene mirroring the famed ending of The Graduate, in which Dustin Hoffman interrupts Katharine Ross' wedding to some anonymous blueblood and spirits her away on a magical public-bus ride to uncertainty. In his directorial debut, Wet Hot American Summer writer-actor Michael Showalter gives a name and an existential identity to that poor, insufficiently charismatic, perpetually frustrated soul left stranded at the altar while the hero gets the girl: a Baxter. His film dares ask what would happen if a romantic comedy were told from the perspective of a Baxter, that nice, agreeable fellow whose modest charms seldom inspire the kind of outsized, melodramatic emotions on which romantic comedies thrive. It's a wonderful premise, and it seems like an ideal fit for Showalter, whose show Stella is currently providing television with some of its most surreally inspired deadpan absurdism since Get A Life.
So why isn't The Baxter an unqualified triumph? Probably because its knockout premise is also its biggest conceptual miscalculation. A truly great Baxter throws off the balance of the film he's in by being more sympathetic or appealing than the ostensible romantic hero, as Rudy Vallee did as arguably the greatest Baxter of all time in The Palm Beach Story. But Showalter is no Vallee, or even Ben Stiller in Reality Bites, to cite a more recent example. No, Showalter's Baxter is a bit of a stiff, an accountant who falls for plastic beauty Elizabeth Banks while fumbling his way through an awkward mating dance of the über-nerds with temp Michelle Williams, who exudes the squirmy, precious vulnerability of a wet puppy. Showalter and Williams are adorable as geeks who take forever to realize just how much they dig each other, but neither makes for a particularly satisfying romantic lead. That's ultimately the film's fatal flaw: it bumps Showalter's Baxter up to the role of the romantic lead without giving him an equivalent increase in complexity or depth.
Few genres are as formula-bound as the romantic comedy, and The Baxter's funniest moments goof irreverently on the genre's clichés, but for much of its duration, Showalter can't seem to decide whether to satirize those conventions or follow them in a slightly different form. Thanks to regular David Gordon Green cinematographer Tim Orr, The Baxter looks great, and Showalter's Stella-mate David Wain has a funny cameo, but it's hard not to see the film as a blown opportunity. Showalter's comedy asks why Baxters can't be romantic leads, then inadvertently provides an all-too-convincing answer at feature length.