The Baxter

What a fine idea “The Baxter” has, and how sad that it blows it. Written and directed by Michael Showalter (of “Wet Hot American Summer” and Comedy Central’s “Stella”), it purports to be a gentle spoof of cookie-cutter romantic comedies, but soon becomes — you guessed it — a cookie-cutter romantic comedy itself.

Showalter plays Elliot Sherman, who tells us in the narration that he is a Baxter. A Baxter is the guy in the movies whom the girl DOESN’T choose in the end. He’s usually a nice enough guy, decent and boring, but clearly not the right man for the heroine, who of course always chooses the hero. She usually does this in a scene of high emotion and cuteness: Her former boyfriend arrives with a sign saying “I’m sorry,” or he interrupts her wedding to the Baxter to proclaim his love, or he stops her at the airport as she is boarding a flight to the city where the Baxter awaits her. Elliot’s romantic life has been a series of these climactic, end-of-the-movie-type scenes, with him forever on the losing side.

He’s a mild-mannered accountant, somewhat resigned to his fate as a Baxter, yet never fully giving up hope for everlasting love. Early in the film, he meets Cecil Mills (Michelle Williams), a temporary secretary at his office who, like him, reads the dictionary for fun. She is clearly the right woman for him. Alas, moments later, he meets a client named Caroline Swann (Elizabeth Banks), who is more beautiful and glamourous than Cecil and whom he pursues instead, leaving Cecil by the wayside.

Elliot learns almost at once that there is Baxter potential here: As is often the case with him, Caroline has a handsome ex-boyfriend with a more exciting job and better credentials. His name is Bradley (Justin Theroux), and much to Elliot’s chagrin, Caroline begins spending time with him again, even while becoming engaged to Elliot. Bradley’s gonna show up at the wedding, proclaim his love, and take Caroline away, isn’t he?

Further complications: Bradley has a current girlfriend, clearly destined for Baxter-hood herself when he ultimately dumps her and goes for Caroline (which of course will make Elliot a Baxter, too). But Bradley’s current girlfriend has an ex-boyfriend TOO, making it one huge chain of people who are presently coupled with the wrong partners, waiting for destiny to force them into the arms of the right person.

This idea of showing multiple relationships from different points of view is clever; after all, how often do we see a film from the Baxter’s perspective? But Showalter fails to fully exploit the possibilities, only occasionally satirizing rom-coms or even subverting their clichés. Halfway through, the film stops trying to be a parody and simply BECOMES a romantic-comedy, with all the usual exasperating formalities.

I note one scene where Elliot has spent a platonic evening with Cecil and wishes to hide her presence in his apartment from Caroline, who will surely misunderstand. The slapsticky farce that ensues is the sort of thing “The Baxter” should be making fun of, not indulging in.

There is also the matter of Showalter’s onscreen persona. It is heavily mannered and affected, a sort of surreally polite man who bears no resemblance to any actual person. This works on “Stella” (fans of that show, of which I am one, will delight in the film’s cameos by David Wain and Michael Ian Black), which lasts only 30 minutes and which is bizarre in its every detail. “The Baxter” is meant to be more grounded — not realistic, exactly, but at least the Movie World version of realistic. And so Showalter winds up sticking out like a sore thumb, a Baxter even in his own film.

C (1 hr., 31 min.; PG-13, some sexual innuendo, mild profanity.)