Written and directed by Michael Showalter, The Baxter is a romantic comedy about romantic comedies, where Showalter plays CPA Elliot Sherman, a decent but boring man who is doomed to be a “Baxter.”
Baxter n. “A good but dull man who is not the right partner for the female lead of a romantic comedy. The Baxter is left at the alter when the leading man makes the dramatic return to win over the leading lady.”
Elliot has been stuck as a Baxter several times over the course of his life, and spends the film trying to shake the Baxter curse. Showalter displays great familiarity with the genre conventions of the romantic comedy, employing several classic motifs with Elliot and company being more conscious of the narrative structure that they’re fitting into.
Elizabeth Banks plays Caroline Swan, Elliot’s latest romantic interest, whom he meets the same day as Cecil Mills (Michelle Williams), who is hired as his temporary secretary. Justin Theroux rounds out the cast as Caroline’s old flame, Bradley Lake.
The plot is as predictable as any romantic comedy, and it’s this predictability which the film siezes on to set itself apart from the majority of the instances of the genre. The humor in the film is often understated, doesn’t go as far into slapstick as films like The Wedding Crashers or There’s Something About Mary, instead falling more into the Indy aesthetic of small moments with awkward but charming people.
The moral of the story is that the reason the Baxters get left behind for the romantic leads is bravery, the bravery/bravado/foolishness to do those big stupid romantic things like standing outside her house with a boom box, flying to Portugal to propose to her at work, doing a rain dance to make it rain, ask her to dance during the last song of the night, etc.
The Baxter urges us to take a chance, to put ourselves out there, to make the big romantic gesture. not necessarily because the gesture works on its own, but that spontenaity and the willingness to be vulnerable will be what puts you in the situations to fall in love and win someone’s heart.
But even a romantic comedy about romantic comedies is still fitting into a formula, as do other meta-romantic comedies like Hitch. The Baxter says that we can change our archetype within the romantic comedy structure, we cannot escape it completely. Sherman only gets his happy ending when he realizes that he’d been living the wrong role opposite the wrong leading lady — which is only enabled by having the ‘right’ leading lady in his life to be able to make that realization. Without the ‘meet cute,’ the story cannot get moving, the real romantic comedy cannot begin.
For the people still looking for the person who stars opposite them in the romantic comedy of their life, these stories serve as consolation. They are a cultural promise that says “Do not despair. The right person is out there, and when you meet the right person, whackiness may ensue but if you put yourself out there, the two of you will have your happily ever after.”
Is this ultimately a healthy message that these films send? Stories can be many things to many people — and for some they are consolation, for others passing entertainment, but they feed into a larger cultural mythology about how romance and relationships work.
We’re seeing more women in the protagonist romantic lead role of the genre, as the person who has to make the romantic gesture and put themselves out to get hurt or get what they want. Gender equity in whose responsibility it is to initiate a relationship goes part and parcel with third-wave feminism, but cultural forces haven’t just dropped away to allow this gender parity to take place — everyone has expectations influencing their decisions. Lingering double-standards position a sexually-agent male as a ‘go-getter, a virile man,’ while a sexually-passive male is ‘effeminite.’ But on the other hand, a sexually-agent female is a ‘loose woman’ while a sexually-passive female is ‘in her place,’ is being ‘proper.’
It’s good to have meta-narratives critiquing the assumptions of narrative genres, but when you engage a genre, you are often stuck feeding into the expectations of that genre or reacting against them. Finding the middle ground more akin to Jose Esteban Munoz’s notion of disidentification, where a critique can be made and self-definition be made manifest, that is much harder, but it’s the path that each of us live day by day, taking the narrative tropes and stories that make up the fabric of our cultural canon and working them in and out of our lives.
This application and analysis of narrative is a necessary part of being a functioning being in society, but like any crafts-person, the better the raw material we have to work with, the more effective tools we can make for understanding and confidently and successfully moving through life. What if more romantic comedies had strong elements of how-to videos, teaching body language, conversational techniques, and real-life appropriate methods for putting yourself in situations where you are more likely to meet people with whom to make a connection? All of this would of course have to be done under the aegis of entertainment so as to be more widely distributed and more appealing to people who want to find love but are for one or another reason unlikely to purchase or investigate ‘how to’ manuals for dating. This brings us back to aesthetics and the reasons why people seek out romantic comedies. Not everyone is looking for advice from them, but perhaps a few people could find it, given the right film/show/narrative to provide it.
Now I’m not saying that all romantic comedies should be didactic dating how-tos with a thin plot, but it’s important for creators to be aware of the cultural/psychological effect their narratives have on the way people experience and understand life. The stories available to us inform what we imagine as the range of possibilities in what has (and therefore can) be done. It’s the approach I try to take with my own work, and in my research, I plan to investigate that part of the creative process as well, setting aside ‘the author is dead’ in favor of ‘the author is very much alive’ — there’s a maxim in writing that says ‘write the novel that you want to read’ — we write for many reasons, and exorcising our demons or exploring psychological possibilties are among them.
Ethnography can go in a lot of directions, and one of the things I want to do with my career is to see how working with people at all levels and stages of the culture-making business in addition to audiences and those who take narratives and transform them to their own ends (fan-fiction, vidding, etc.) can lead to a greater overal understanding of the cultural process of making meaning and understanding the world.