During a recent interview, Michael Showalter at times seemed as socially uncomfortable as the character he plays in his frothy new comedy, "The Baxter," an ode to the romantically challenged.
Although casually dressed in jeans and a blue knitted shirt, he spoke formally and sat rigidly in his chair in the lobby of Le Meridien hotel. He squeezed the black straw that came with his iced coffee, pulverizing it into a lump. He rubbed his temples and placed a hand on his chest, sighing deeply.
"If I'm coming across awkwardly," he said, "I guess my 'Baxterness' is coming out."
The 35-year-old single Jewish actor-writer-director invented the word, "Baxter," to refer to the character who never gets the girl in romantic comedies. He is the guy who has few social graces, two left feet, and not a clue of how to deliver the witty repartee that comes so effortlessly to, say, Cary Grant.
Think John Howard's character in "The Philadelphia Story," Woody Allen in "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and Albert Brooks in "Broadcast News."
Now comes "The Baxter's" Elliot Sherman, a nice but uptight accountant with hay fever and a penchant for reading the dictionary, page by page. As the film begins, he suffers the quintessential Baxter indignity: getting dumped at the altar by his beautiful wife not-to-be (Elizabeth Banks). The comedy flashes back to reveal Sherman's disastrous prior relationships, and how he bumbles through assorted humiliations to win the right girl, a winsome female Baxter (Michelle Williams).
A fan of romantic comedies, Showalter conceived the movie when he developed an affection for the genre's odd-man-out as a young man.
"Typically, everything comes easily to the male romantic lead, but for the Baxter it's not so easy to fit in, to get along with groups of people, to exude charm and confidence," he said. "It's a struggle I identify with."
Director David Wain, who co-wrote 2001's "Wet Hot American Summer" with Showalter, said "The Baxter" tweaks the romantic comedy genre.
"It focuses on the 'wrong' guy; gives that guy his own stage, so that he ultimately becomes the leading man," said Wain, who has a small part in the movie.
While Showalter relates to the fictional Sherman, he insists the character is not autobiographical. Sure, he could be withdrawn at his Princeton, N.J. high school, but he also took the girl of his choice to the prom. He made out at his predominantly Jewish summer camp.
His long-ago camp flame, he told The New York Times, "was way more physically mature than I was. She was like twice my height."
Back home, his Jewish mother, a Princeton University English professor, promoted feminist values, challenged traditional male role models and urged her son to question social norms. (Showalter's father, a Rutger's University French professor, is Episcopalian.)
One of young Michael's first cinematic loves (that's "love" in the admiration sense) was Woody Allen, because, "He was neurotic and insecure and went against what we think of as our typical American masculine hero," he said. Showalter identified more with Allen than the John Wayne type as he went off to New York University, where he and Wain helped found a comedy troupe. The group eventually morphed into MTV's sketch comedy show "The State" and Comedy Central's 2005 series "Stella."
In the "Meatballs"-esque teen comedy spoof "Wet Hot American Summer," based on the co-authors' Jewish camp experiences, Showalter played a Baxter named Coop -- a counselor smitten by an indifferent brunette.
He viewed that kind of character from a different perspective while watching Nora Ephron's "Sleepless in Seattle" some years ago.
"I started to wonder, 'What would happen if instead of watching Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks fall in love, we stayed with Bill Pullman's character, the man Meg Ryan leaves behind?'" he said. "I wanted to know, 'How did everything work out for him? Did he get love, too?'"
The result was "The Baxter," a name Showalter chose because "it sounds stiff and formal yet regal." He added that Sherman is a more WASPy kind of Baxter, stuck in traditional social norms and how he's supposed to act. Whereas a Jewish Baxter, said Showalter, would be "more openly self-deprecating, self-aware, and intellectually superior, which in a way makes him more heroic."
Neither type of Baxter is unworthy of affection, however. The Hollywood Reporter may have dubbed his movie "an aggressive loser comedy," but Showalter emphatically disagrees.
"Elliot is not a loser," he said, as he accidentally banged the table so hard that water spilled. "He's just not your typical hero."
"The Baxter" opens today in Los Angeles.
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