Running Time: 91 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: Anamorphic Widescreen (1.85:1)
Audio: English – Dolby Digital 5.1
December 13, 2005
Do you know what a “Baxter” is? If not, don’t worry, because before I saw this film, neither did I. Basically, as writer/director/star Michael Showalter tells us right out of the gate, a Baxter is a nice but unlucky doormat of a man that ends up with a woman that only settled for him after being unable to land the man she truly loves. And wouldn’t you know that this story just so happens to have a textbook example of a Baxter as its main character!
In the film, Mr. Showalter plays the aforementioned character, financial advisor Elliot Sherman, an ultra-conservative, unadventurous fellow who always seems to find himself on the losing side in the game of love. It is not that he doesn’t try, but Elliot just cannot seem to find a way to win the heart of any woman he is interested in. Eventually, his lack of results with the opposite sex causes him to be the subject of ridicule even from his own grandmother, who takes to calling him a “Baxter”.
Shortly into the film, however, it seems that poor Elliot’s fortunes are beginning to change, as he woos and becomes engaged to a lovely, successful young woman named Caroline (Elizabeth Banks). Having reached this stage of a relationship with a person so desirable as Caroline, Elliot’s self-confidence grows, and he wonders whether people like his dear old granny were not wrong about him.
Sadly, Elliot’s happiness proves fleeting, as Bradley Lake (Justin Theroux), Caroline’s handsome and charming ex, shows up unexpectedly at the couple’s engagement party, and begins to reconnect with his former flame. For consolation, the dismayed Elliot turns to his rather motley crew of pals, including the quirky Ed, played by Michael Ian Black, and a cute little secretary named Cecil Mills (Michelle Williams). It is the latter that gives Elliot the most help though, as she has endured enough trouble in romantic relationships to be able to offer a wealth of advice to Elliot.
As you might expect, Elliot and Cecil begin spending more time together, and as he confides in her, they become closer. See where this is going? If you have ever seen a romantic comedy before, I would bet that you do! Yes, friends, though it starts out with more ambition, The Baxter turns into what it was supposed to satire – the conventional, predictable, warm and fuzzy rom-com. The only difference is that the characters are not quite intriguing enough to really care whether they get together or not, and there is not enough style to offset the lack of substance, and make the extremely predictable story fun to watch.
Perhaps Michael Showalter simply wore too many hats here. As mentioned, in addition to starring, he wrote and directed The Baxter, and this was his first time at the helm of a feature film. Obviously, that is a lot of pressure to deal with, and I though I would not go as far as to say the pressure was too much for him, it looked like Mr. Showalter had a difficult time carrying the film. In particular, I thought his line delivery and mannerisms were a bit uneven, and that he had trouble bringing the subtle humor written into some of the dialogue to life, which is ironic since he wrote it.
Conversely, co-star Michelle Williams really made the most of her screen time, and easily steals most of the scenes she appears in. She is spunky, funny, and utterly cute, a combination which makes her a delight to watch in The Baxter. Unfortunately, Williams could not rescue this film all on her own, and although her performance was winning, and it gave me greater respect for her abilities as an actor, I did not think that the chemistry between her and Showalter was there. It goes without saying that this creates serious problems for a romantic comedy.
Continuing with the supporting players, Justin Theroux is also very solid as Brad Lake, making it tough to dislike him although his appearance creates serious problems for the film’s protagonist. As Elliot’s goofy pals, Michael Ian Black and David Wain have some good lines, but they are onscreen for far too brief a time to make any real impact. The final performance worth noting was turned in by Peter Dinklage, who has an even shorter, but still effective turn as a flamboyant wedding planner.
Unfortunately, despite these witty supporting turns, the promise the film shows early on is never realized, and though it appears to have been intended as a satire of the predictable and stylish romantic comedies churned out by the major Hollywood studios, Showalter’s directorial debut ends up relying on the very same conventions. As a result, although The Baxter’s offbeat humor makes it mildly amusing in places, it lives up to the lame definition of its title, unlikely to make the impact on most viewers that they need to make a commitment.
SO, HOW DOES IT LOOK?
The Baxter is not exactly a visually stimulating film, but MGM home video’s anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer displays the source material very well. Taking it from the top, color rendering is outstanding, and even bright, bold colors are reproduced without a trace of smearing. The actor’s skin tones are equally well represented, appearing smooth and natural throughout the film’s 91 minutes.
Shadow detail and image depth were also well above average, thanks to a solid black level and well-balanced contrast. For a fairly low-budget affair, The Baxter also looks very clean and crisp on DVD, with a satisfying level of fine detail and a negligible amount of specks and grain visible from time to time. Lastly, the transfer was not undermined by the excessive application of edge enhancement or the appearance of any undesirable compression artifacts.
In summation, The Baxter has been carefully transferred to DVD, with image quality that was far better than expected. While we are not talking reference quality here, the presentation more than does justice to the visual elements of this motion picture.
WHAT IS THAT NOISE?
I really hate saying this, but the description is appropriate – the soundtrack for The Baxter sounds about like that of most any other low-budget romantic comedy out there. Essentially, what this means is that although there are 5.1 discrete channels in play, the vast majority of the audio information is emitted from the front of the listening space. Indeed, although there is a slight widening of the soundstage at a couple of points, particularly when music is used to underscore what is happening on screen, the center channel does all the heavy lifting.
To that end, at least dialogue is reproduced cleanly, with a fluid, life-like midrange and smooth high end. Granted, it does not have much to compete with, but dialogue is presented cleanly, without any sibilance or other audible distractions. There could have been a bit more punch in the lower registers, but aside from that minor quibble, the track is satisfactory is almost every respect.
The keepcase touts the inclusion of a “hilarious” blooper reel. I am still looking for that one, but the blooper reel I did watch (1:08 total) includes four very mundane, brief, and forgettable sections:
--- Pass the Ham
--- Massive Geode: Man
--- Massive Geode: Woman
--- What Are You Doing Here?
Trailers for Sueno, The Gospel, Ringers: Lord of the Fans, Madison, Creature Comforts – The Complete First Season, and Christmas With the Kranks are included on the “Special Features” menu.
(on a five-point scale)
THE LAST WORD
Though it gave me higher hopes for it, I found The Baxter to be structured every bit like a conventional romantic comedy. In my opinion, the stylishness and chemistry that makes the typical entry into the genre fun to watch is absent, and there is not much in the way of real romance or comedy either. Now I am not going to ding the film for being extremely predictable, since just about all rom-coms are, but the characters in this film were quite forgettable, so it was hard to develop a real interest in the proceedings.
As for the DVD, the A/V presentation is fine, but the blooper reel is a waste of time, so this disc really might as well have been a barebones release. If you are a die-hard romantic comedy lover looking for something new to watch, or if you are a big Michael Showalter fan, you might want to consider picking up The Baxter. Maybe I am too obtuse to understand Michael Showalter’s humor, but I am really hard pressed to recommend anything other than a rental to anyone else, especially since I do not believe the film has much replay value.
To sum things up, I certainly appreciate and admire Mr. Showalter’s effort, but ultimately, this film itself was a “Baxter” - nice, but not nearly exciting enough that you would want to spend a significant amount of time with it.