Film Reviews: Wednesday, September 14, 2005
Michael Showalter fails to charm his fiancée or us as ‘The Baxter.’
Just Like Heaven\r\nStarring Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo. Directed by Mark Waters. Written by Leslie Dixon and Peter Tolan, based on Marc Levy’s novel. Rated PG-13.\r\n\r\nThe Baxter\r\nStarring Michael Showalter, Elizabeth Banks, Justin Theroux, and Michelle Williams. Written and directed by Michael Showalter. Rated PG-13. Opens Sep. 23.
Angels and Nerds

Two upcoming romantic comedies change the genre’s rules with mixed results.


Romantic comedies are so governed by conventions and clichés that the two under discussion this week stand out by turning those formulas on their heads. Only one of them, though, is even good enough to make you wish it had been better.

Whether they’re sublime like Truly, Madly, Deeply or absurd like Ghost, most movies about love between mortal people and celestial beings cast the man in the latter role. (Says something about our collective romantic fantasies, doesn’t it?) Just Like Heaven differs by making the woman into the ghost. It’s based on a French novel by Marc Levy, published in this country under the title If Only It Were True. The movie changes all the characters’ names but retains the book’s San Francisco setting. Reese Witherspoon plays Elizabeth, a lonely hospital physician who’s rendered comatose in a car accident. When a bereaved, hard-drinking guy named David (Mark Ruffalo) sublets her apartment, he finds her spirit haunting the place. She has no memory of who she used to be or even any inkling of her disembodied state, but she’s pissed that this slob is messing up her rooms, and he’s not too happy that he’s the only person who can see and speak to her.

The director here is Mark Waters, whose knack for deflating humor redeemed the sentimental excesses of Freaky Friday and Mean Girls, but it’s much less in evidence here. He cleverly stages the initial encounter between David and Elizabeth’s ghost — you can’t tell where in the apartment she appears from or where she goes to — but his touch too often deserts him here, as in the loud misfire of a scene where Elizabeth possesses David’s body. Even with Witherspoon rightly playing her role as dryly as possible, and Napoleon Dynamite himself, Jon Heder, stopping by for a turn as a slack-jawed occult bookstore employee, this movie still sinks into touchy-feely muck. Even the prodigiously talented Ruffalo is well off his game in a role that needed more brittleness. The worst thing about this film is a drawn-out and appallingly far-fetched climax that sends us out with a gauzy vision of phony happiness.

The worst thing about The Baxter is its timing. If this movie had come out only two months ago, critics like me might have lauded it as fresh and ingenious. Sadly, it trails in the wake of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which has some of the same actors and much more to recommend it.

The title refers to the guy in romantic comedies who’s always set to marry the leading lady’s character and is always ditched at the last instant in favor of the leading man. The Baxter in this movie is Elliot Sherman (Michael Showalter), a supergeeky CPA who reads the dictionary for his own amusement and has somehow gotten engaged to a gorgeous heiress named Caroline (Elizabeth Banks). Shortly before their wedding, though, her high school sweetheart (Justin Theroux) inevitably returns from a geological expedition to spoil things. He’s richer, handsomer, funnier, a better dancer, and more in touch with his feelings than Elliot, who can only make one wrong move after another while his fiancée falls under the other man’s spell again.

Telling the movie from this character’s point of view is a neat trick if you can pull it off, but this one can’t. Showalter, a co-founding member of the comedy trio Stella, also pulls duty as writer and director here, and there’s fault to be found with him in every capacity. Where Steve Carell played a 40-year-old virgin like a credible human being, Showalter plays Elliot like the foil in a five-minute comedy sketch, and the act gets old in a hurry. The rest of the acting is similarly broad, with Banks giving a particularly shrill performance. To be sure, the movie exists to send up cinematic conventions, so stylized acting is in order here, but Showalter plays Elliot as so nerdy that we never buy Caroline’s attraction to him. We’re not even sure what he sees in her, so the whole plot has no weight.

The news isn’t all bad, though. As a mousy temp worker named Cecil who’s destined for Elliot, Michelle Williams plays the material with the exact amount of sharpness and eccentricity needed. The movie’s at its best when it forgets about being Baxterish and turns into pure farce, like when Cecil is in Elliot’s bedroom (innocently, of course), and Caroline bursts in and somehow fails to see her even when she’s in plain sight. Elements like these just make you wistful. If only Showalter had taken a bit more care in the writing and cast a more empathetic actor in his place, The Baxter might have been something.

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