Screens One-trick dorky

The timeless, yet tiresome, tale of an unredeemed nerd who finds love among his own kind

Does anyone remember Brian Avery? He played Carl Smith, the jilted would-be groom who is left standing at the altar when Katharine Ross' Elaine Robinson runs off with Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock at the end of The Graduate. Elliott Sherman would call Carl a Baxter, which is the term coined by Elliott's aunt for the guy who always loses the girl. Elliott, a dweeby C.P.A. whose bedtime reading is a dictionary, is an obvious member of the species. His romantic history, in high school, college, and business school, is a dismal record of losing out to someone else. The Baxter is Elliott's story, and, as he explains in a voice-over, he offers it as a gesture of hope for "every guy out there who's ever been splashed by a taxi." It is a splattered demographic at which Michael Showalter - writer, director, and leading actor - aims his amiable film.

Michael Showalter wrote, directed, and stars in The Baxter, a film about the sort of guy who gets left at the altar and his path to romantic redemption.

The Baxter begins where a certain kind of Hollywood movie, such as The Graduate, ends. At the climax of a wedding ceremony, the leading lady is about to exchange her nuptial vows when a valiant lover from her past races up the church aisle and claims her for himself. The aborted wedding is Elliott's own, and the rest of the film is an explanation of how it came to that and where this Baxter goes from there.

Elliott was about to marry beautiful, spirited, accomplished Caroline Swann (Banks). In the voice-over narration in which he examines his life as if it were a movie, Elliott states: "It seemed hard to believe that Caroline Swann could actually be interested in me, Elliott Sherman." It is indeed hard, though beyond that preposterous premise everything else in the story is quite plausible, in fact predictable. Since the structure of The Baxter is circular, we know from the altered altar ritual that Caroline will dump Elliott in favor of suave geologist Brad (Theroux). And as soon as we learn that Cecil Mills (Williams), a mousy temp substituting for Elliott's ailing secretary, also enjoys reading the dictionary, we realize that two true Baxters have converged. The Baxter is a romantic comedy that can be reduced to a very simple pitch: The guy who always loses the girl gets the girl who always loses the guy. Everything else is details.

The Baxter
Writ. & dir. Michael Showalter; feat. Showalter, Elizabeth Banks, Michelle Williams, Justin Theroux (PG-13)

Unfortunately, there are no devils in The Baxter's details, merely passionless particulars about a drab accountant's dreary ways. While his neighbors attack their takeout dinner with chopsticks, Elliott goes at it methodically with a fork. A more inventive study in the nature of Baxterhood (freed of copyright restrictions) might have followed Carl Smith after he leaves the California church unwed. Does he make a fortune out of plastics? Like The 40 Year Old Virgin, The Baxter invites us to laugh with, not just at, the hapless dorks dwelling in our midst, and ourselves. It offers the revenge, or at least the consolation, of the eternal nerd. The problem, though, is that even nerds weary of one-trick donkeys, movies whose premise exhausts their promise. And millions thrilled to images of Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, although and because those lives seemed nothing like their own. By definition, Baxters who succeed are no longer Baxters, but The Baxter is exactly what it says it is.

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