So here's the grand conceit -- the wonderful starting point -- for "The Baxter." Picture the climactic scene of 1967's "The Graduate," which has been quoted or flat-out stolen in so many romantic comedies: Our romantic hero bursts into a wedding ceremony just as the woman of his dreams is about to declare "I do" to the wrong guy, usually some lifeless drone with a name like Bruce. Before the mortified guests, the crasher confesses his love to the bride and tells her how insane he's been not to realize they're destined for each other.
"Oh, John," she says, as John hoists the bride into his arms and spirits her off to a better, beautiful future.
The groom who's left behind? He's the Baxter, the guy who's dumped for the better candidate. In the romantic comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, the Baxter was often played by Ralph Bellamy, for instance, who watched helplessly as Cary Grant stole brides from him in "The Awful Truth" and "His Girl Friday."
"The Baxter," written and directed by Michael Showalter, opens where "The Graduate" leaves off and it stays with the dumpee. Elliot Wendall Sherman (Showalter) is standing at the altar with bride-to-be Caroline (Elizabeth Banks) when the sexily stubbled Bradley (Justin Theroux) barges into the church and steals her from under Elliot's beaky nose. The rest of the movie's a flashback of how Elliot -- an uptight accountant even by uptight accountant standards -- got to this point. How could he have lost out on Caroline?
Excuse me, Mr. Showalter? White duh-tesy phone. The question should be: How did a romantic bottom-feeder like Elliot land Caroline -- a woman with almost intimidating brains, beauty and bank balance -- in the first place? These mismatches in romantic comedies are a staple of the genre, but there's supposed to be the possibility that things could work between them. This union's such a nonstarter, it poses no challenge to Elliot's other, more obvious admirer: Cecil (Michelle Williams), a temp filling in as his secretary, who's quiet, demure and clearly predestined to be the future Mrs. Sherman. They both enjoy reading the dictionary for fun, it turns out.
"What letter are you up to?" inquires Elliot.
This moderately amusing line signals that there's nothing deeper inside Elliot's soul than a quest to find someone as pedantic and literal as he. The key to the great romantic comedies, from "Top Hat" to "Broadcast News," is that the potential lovers have passionate yearnings. They live life. They're interesting. They're not just looking for love, they deserve it. When they seal their futures with a kiss, hallelujah, the world becomes a richer place.
With such a predictable plot, the only creative opportunity left is to make Elliot, you know, funny. Unfortunately, Showalter's Elliot is a one-dimensional Baxter, whose systemic inability to be charismatic is discomforting, not amusing. He's a machine of exactitude, paranoia and nonspontaneity, who works for the "second-best accounting firm in this country." We should start laughing when?
If a romantic comedy takes up the cause of the guy who's traditionally left behind, surely the movie should take a nontraditional route. Unfortunately, Showalter all-too-slavishly follows the lock-step school of formula romance. The supreme irony here is that Showalter is part of the comedy group Stella with Michael Ian Black and David Wain, whose portfolio has always been the daring and the offbeat. With "The Baxter," Showalter's begging his way into the ranks of the safe and the mediocre.
The Baxter (91 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual humor and drug references.