starring Michael Showalter, Elizabeth Banks, Michelle Williams, Justin Theroux
written and directed by Michael Showalter
starring Evan Rachel Wood, Ron Livingston, James Woods, Jane Krakowski
screenplay by Skander Halim
directed by Marcos Siega
by Walter Chaw Writer-director Michael Showalter swings for the rafters with his anti-romcom The Baxter and ends up hitting into a double play: it's less a satire of romcom conventions than a meek kowtow before their awesome ubiquity. Showalter (also starring as CPA Elliot Sherman) plays the titular schlub, the "Baxter" being a creature of extreme nerdy social incompetence most often glimpsed in frown and tux in the retreating background of Dustin Hoffman rescuing Katharine Ross from the altar. Not a terrible idea (i.e., making the boring, button-down dork the centre of a satirical romance) for a movie as self-serving, self-pitying, neo-Woody Allen ideas go, but as The Baxter unfolds with a suspiciously-familiar series of contrived situations, gentle misunderstandings involving homosexuality and a strange woman in your bed, and a parade of women so far out of Elliot's league as to render his eventual abandonment as inevitable as his ultimate match (with Cecil (Michelle Williams), likewise far out of his league) is unlikely, it becomes clear that the flick is just as stupid as that which it purports to lampoon. The Baxter is actually harder to stomach than its traditional romcom brethren because in place of a leading man locked in its pre-destined narrative, there's barely a supporting character.
It's not just a matter of looks, it's a matter of Elliot being one of those peculiarly arrested elitist assholes who knows two things (probably wine and classic "Star Trek") and nothing else and, moreover, believes there's nothing else worth knowing. Elliot meets lithesome Caroline (the suddenly-omnipresent Elizabeth Banks) the same day weeping-willow temp Cecil crosses his path. Of course Elliot, man of the new millennium that he is, chooses the blonde bombshell over the soulful drowned rat (just as beautiful, but cast as plain), only to have Caroline's old flame Bradley (Justin Theroux) show up at an ill-fated reunion. Elliot tries to pass himself off as hip, making an ass of himself as he tries to make others feel stupid for not knowing the wine list and generally acting the heel in situations meant to edify him or denigrate his opponent (and his fiancée in the process, but who's counting?). Could be that I'm missing the point, or it could be that Showalter has purposefully made Elliot an insufferable nitwit to illustrate a point about how stupid romantic comedies can be. Could be--but I don't think so, and it doesn't come off that way besides, whatever the intent. In fact, The Baxter feels exactly as blinkered and self-righteous as a film made by someone who doesn't believe that his party-of-one status is a result entirely of his own noxiousness.
Noxiousness is the point, of course, of Marcos Siega's Pretty Persuasion, which discovers a star in young Evan Rachel Wood but spends the rest of its time slapping on the country-club offense in sloppy, self-congratulatory strokes. Wood plays Kimberly Joyce, daughter of a sleazy electronics magnate (James Woods) and the Heather-est of all the Heathers in the brief history of high-school mean-girl melodramas: a calculating, cunning black widow using sex, race, and class to take her revenge on the classmates and teachers she believes may have wronged her. The point at which I stopped playing ball with Pretty Persuasion is the moment where Ron Livingston's idiot English teacher Mr. Anderson congratulates his wife (Selma Blair, natch) for using the word "besmirch" correctly in a sentence. It's a big, giant, spine-crushing, shoulder-separating pat on the ol' back--a "we're attacking all sorts of pretensions here" situation that scavenges the blowjobs from To Die For, frames a conversation between two lesbians against a washroom "women" sign, and, most egregiously, finds Mr. Anderson delivering an important monologue in front of a blackboard with a definition of "satire" on it as its only decoration.
The crux of the piece is the picture's dedication to equating the Iraq War with a sexual-harassment tempest in a teapot, stirred by Kimberly's canny manipulation of every single other character in what amounts to a high school version of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible". Miller, incidentally, is largely unreadable (I still like "Death of a Salesman", but not for the same reasons I used to), badly dated, and so didactic he's not social satire anymore; he's one of those interminable "talks" you used to have with your grandfather. I don't know who still needs to be lectured on our legal system, our almost equal intolerance for Jews and Arabs, or the scary confluence between our news and entertainment media structures--any more than I know who still needs a lesson on how sex is power. Wherever they are, they represent the only people who could possibly be edified by Pretty Persuasion. Failing an education, the film fails too as entertainment in that broad shots across the bow from a source so smug that it doesn't know at what point it crosses over to the dark side aren't what most well-adjusted, well-informed people consider entertaining.
It's clumsily-written (there's actually, without irony, a Sylvester Stallone joke), with Wood's glacial performance its only saving grace. When the poor little Muslim girl (Adi Schnall) drawn into Kimberly's web serves as the resolution of the film's gun-violence subplot, one does wonder if the message is that "we are all sinners" (scrawled poignantly in Arabic, natch, on another blackboard), or that if you push Arabs just a little bit, they'll go off like a pipe bomb. The film's receiving praise for hating everybody and has been compared to "South Park" for its general lawlessness ("South Park" actually appears to be attacked by the film for its insensitivity), but by tacking on pathos and even a kind of bed-wetting feminist redemption for our antihero, it's pretty crystal clear that the target it most hates and underestimates is its own audience. Kimberly's called a bitch, a cunt, a dirty little whore, and a twat by her father, her lovers, her best friends, and herself--and so, by the end of Pretty Persuasion, after 100 minutes of director Siega participating in her systematic degradation with ugly flashbacks and obfuscating, superior time shifts, you come to realize that despite the comparisons being made of this film to good films, it's really just a geek show with a tacked-on moral. If The Baxter is Rosencrantz replacing Hamlet, Pretty Persuasion is the distaff Napoleon Dynamite starring the liger. Originally published: September 2, 2005.