The Baxter

dir. Michael Showalter

For a guy whose cinematic inventions include Wet Hot American Summer's immortal fridge-humping cook, left-field comedian Michael Showalter comes off in person as a remarkably serious-minded fella. During a recent Seattle stop, the co-creator of comedy groups Stella and the State politely yet firmly railed against the recent preponderance of Wedding Crashers-type comedies, where structure and consistency take a back seat to the cast's established personalities. It doesn't have to make sense; it just has to have Will Ferrell.

The Baxter, Showalter's directorial debut, serves as a determined throwback to the time when plot, not pratfalls, reigned supreme. Unfortunately, despite moments of genuine inspiration, its pleasures largely remain theoretical. The filmmaker clearly loves the screwball comedies of the Golden Age, and makes a valiant stab at recr eating their distinct rhythms. Affection doesn't always equal aptitude, however, and the results come off as curiously inert, with an uncomfortable number of dead spots. The overriding impression is of a game cast (including Paul Rudd, The Station Agent's Peter Dinklage, and Stella cohorts David Wain and Michael Ian Black) prevented from fully getting their ya-yas out by an overly strict framework. Changeups are commendable and all, but Showalter may be guilty of playing too far from his strengths.

Still, the premise is gold, to the point where you have to wonder why it hasn't been done before: After a lifetime of being left at the altar, a Bill Pullman/Ralph Bellamy nebbish of an accountant (Showalter) determines to hang on to his latest catch, even when her former Mr. Right comes a'knocking. The resulting romantic complications run hot and cold, with the occasional out-of-nowhere fringe element (such as an hilariously impromptu breakdancing competition) registering the strongest. Mild bummer though it may be, though, there's ultimately something amiable about the film that resists harsh criticism. Showalter's intent remains a valid one, after all, and it's entirely possible that audiences not accustomed to his previous inspired madness may take to this new direction. Honestly, more films should be like this. Just, you know, a little bit better. ANDREW WRIGHT

Just Like Heaven

dir. Mark Waters

Just in time for Baghdad stampedes, Hurricane Katrina, and the anniversary of 9/11 comes Just Like Heaven, a movie determined to bring us the lighter side of tragedy. Pretty people struck down in the bloom of youth? Charming. Precocious kids monkeying around with life-support equipment? Hysterical! And your comatose relatives? They just might wake up... if you love them enough.

Über-pert Reese Witherspoon plays Elizabeth, a frigid, workaholic doctor (note to kids: don't go to medical school unless you want to be lonely and unfulfilled forever) who crosses paths with a careening truck (HOOOOONK!) and winds up in a coma. While her mortal shell lies vacant in the hospital, Elizabeth's stylish and sassy spirit heads back to her apartment, only to find studly subletter David (Mark Ruffalo) failing to use a coaster. Hijinks (and ghost sex) ensue.

Just Like Heaven is the most recycled of movies. The dialogue surpasses cliché to achieve total nonsense ("Just thinking... thinking... thinking about her"), the jokes are insultingly lazy (how many more times are we expected to laugh at "I just threw up in my mouth"?), and even the ghost-movie inconsistencies are familiar (she can't touch a phone or a person, but she can ride in a car and stand on a floor?). The stars' obvious red-hot embarrassment eclipses any possible chemistry. Ruffalo, who's saddled with lines such as "Oh, come on now. I'm sorry that I said you were dead," and "I'm gonna steal your body!" is completely non-present.

Gigantic, gorgeous, and impossibly tasteful, the haunted apartment is the real star of Just Like Heaven. At a time when much of the world is rotting, exploding, underwater, or on fire (Just Like That Other Place), it soars immaculate above San Francisco to remind us that, for the wealthy and white, a little slice of heaven is still attainable. LINDY WEST

Hellbent

dir. Paul Etheredge-Ouzts

This micro-budgeted GLBT spin on the traditional slasher flick works awfully hard to be taken seriously—which is precisely why it fails. As a genre, the slasher film isn't a particularly interesting one, and by refusing a dash of camp, Hellbent, despite its best intentions, never quite kicks into a high enough gear to warrant interest.

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The story is pure stock: Eddie (Dylan Fergus), a would-be police officer relegated to office work after losing an eye, heads to the West Hollywood Halloween Carnival with three of his friends. Each member of the group happens to nail a different social trait: besides dreamy Eddie there's newbie Joey (Hank Harris), cocky Tobey (Matt Phillips), and slutty Chaz (Andrew Levitas). At the carnival, each is pursued, and most are picked off, by a masked—and perfectly toned—lunatic whose particular area of melee interest is severing heads. Along the way they learn a little about lust, a little about love, and even a little about themselves.

Director Etheredge-Ouzts has a decent eye and a talent for maximizing meager budgets—and as an exercise in trailblazing, Hellbent has some merit (it's a victory, I suppose, for the gay community to finally have its own slasher franchise)—but no matter how original it aims to be it can't escape its own seriousness. In a genre where brutality is exercised for the sake of comedy, even if that comedy is completely unintentional (think Jason driving a spear through humping teenagers, or Freddy turning a dozing jock into a human marionette), Etheredge-Ouzts's film offers nothing but grim spectacle without the necessary punch lines. BRADLEY STEINBACHER