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'The Baxter' is snappy but self-consciously hip

The comedic actor Michael Showalter has a small mouth, a big nose, beady eyes, and a lake of inky black hair. He seems meek and feeble, but in his nerdy way, he is cute. Is he so cute you'd spend the rest of your life with him? In that sense, movies have been a problem for guys like him. If a woman accepts his marriage proposal, it's only because doing so will accelerate the arrival of the man she's meant for.

To illustrate this phenomenon, Showalter has written and directed ''The Baxter," a neat little movie about the plight of such men, in which Showalter casts himself as a gentleman dweeb named Elliot Sherman. Elliot works as an accountant in New York City and appears to fit the bill of a Baxter, who, according to the movie, is the guy who gets hay fever and wears sock guards. In romantic comedy terms, the Baxter is the sap whom Meg Ryan leaves to be with Tom Hanks.

It's commonly referred to as the Ralph Bellamy part because Rosalind Russell famously tossed over Bellamy for Cary Grant in ''His Girl Friday." But Showalter's Baxter is less Bellamy and more an ineffectual Dagwood Bumstead. His Blondie here is Caroline Swann (Elizabeth Banks), a pert, go-getting minx who falls for Elliot, a fellow Dartmouth grad. Together they enjoy a life of complementary pajamas and blissful compromise. (She wanted to spend their honeymoon in Majorca but settles for his choice: Yellowstone.)

Disruptive clouds hover above their love. One is Caroline's ex-boyfriend Bradley (Justin Theroux), an unctuous but undeniably dashing cad who's back in Brooklyn. The other is Cecil (Michelle Williams), Elliot's sweetly droopy temp, who's reading the dictionary. (So is he.) Clearly, the man is meant to spend his life with this other woman -- at least according to the rules of the genre Showalter is tinkering with. Elliot is living a fantasy with Caroline, anyway. Between the competing affections and Elliot and Caroline's increasing incompatibility, their love is destined to hit the rocks.

Showalter and his cast, which also includes Paul Rudd, who's funny, and Peter Dinklage, who isn't, have put a lot of energy into maintaining the notion that there's a 1950s Ivy League outpost in 21st-century Brooklyn, and the idea has its amusements. The dialogue snaps the way it did in some classic Hollywood screwballs, and the costumes and decoration seem to have sprung from the most chic faux-vintage lifestyle catalog. Yet the movie is a self-consciously arch work of hipsterism that's more styled than funny. ''The 40-Year-Old Virgin" treads similar social ground with fewer conceits.

Showalter is one-third of the sketch-improvisation trio Stella, whose arbitrary act runs on Comedy Central, and that show has the same problem with tone. He's not enough of a director to maintain a balance in ''The Baxter" between knowing silliness and the desired emotional sincerity. The absurdist approach to comedy seems to intentionally upstage the characters' feelings. Only when Williams is around does the movie seem human, true, and funny: Even in her slapstick there's pain. She's almost too good: It's not until she's left a scene that you realize the movie isn't working.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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