It seems apropos, somehow, of current pop-culture attitudes thatThe 40 Year-Old Virgin, hyped as a raunchy R-rated alternative to PG-13 comedies, would have such a love/hate relationship with explicit material. On the one hand, it indulges a penchant for dialogue that’s occasionally vulgar (shit-stained balls indeed) and consistently profane (check out the string of swears ad-libbed by star and co-writer Steve Carell in his big did-my-own-stunts chest-waxing scene). On the other hand, its characters eventually evince a weird primness where actual visual depictions of sexuality are concerned. What’s that about?
There are two specific scenes I’m thinking of. In one of them, the film’s vixenish flirt of a bookseller, played by Elizabeth Banks, strips down in front of Andy, the long-standing virgin of the film’s title, gets into her tub, and proceeds to masturbate (underwater, well out of the camera’s direct view) with a flexible shower head. Only in The 40 Year-Old Virgin is a girl who looks like Elizabeth Banks pleasuring herself underwater not considered a turn-on — unbelievably, in a movie like this, she’s declared a freak. A little later on, Trish (Catherine Keener), the mature single mom who’s been intrigued and charmed by Carell’s guilelessness, wigs out when she finds a few porn movies stashed at his apartment and hits the road in near-hysterics.
It’s true that the movie turns serious and almost sentimental in the last 15 or 20 minutes, veering away from the occasional crassness it indulges early on and taking a turn into sweetness. But in these scenes, the characters populating this sex comedy suddenly become shocked (shocked!) at the lewd goings-on around them. Is Carell’s shunning of Banks meant to be overstated? Is Trish’s distaste for porn meant to be an overreaction? If so, the movie’s not clear on those points. It comes across instead as a failure of nerve. I’d hate to think of any youngish, impressionable viewer coming away with the idea that masturbation and/or consumption of pornography, two fairly popular pastimes in mainstream America, are inherently shameful or freakish.
Fortunately, the film’s conclusions are otherwise pretty sensible. Andy ultimately decides to save his first sexual experience to share with someone he’s in love with, not necessarily someone he’s committed to, and I don’t consider that particularly regressive or prudish. In the course of trying to get Andy laid, his friends become acutely aware of their own insecurities and shortcomings. And the film’s kind suggestion that patience and understanding are hallmarks of any fulfilling relationship is well taken.
Director Judd Apatow is no stylist, and the film suffers a bit from a general visual drabness and a limping pace that keep some of the jokes from hitting as squarely as they should and drains some of the third-act momentum. But it makes up ground with an ensemble of swell performances, an ear for everyday banter, and a nice eye for the way unlikely friendships develop. At first, the other guys who work with Andy (at some fictionalized Circuit City clone at an L.A. strip mall) have little use for him except as an object of mild derision and disbelief. But when they learn that he’s gone all these years without the love of a good woman, they warm to him in that frighteningly sincere, buddy-buddy way that men have of rallying around each other in sudden service of an absurd cause.
Did I mention funny? Yeah, it’s funny. Mostly in the material leading up to, but not including, the bits where Andy discovers love, sex, commitment, and sexy grandma. The gear-shifting is a little clumsy — this isn’t a film with much panache, and the transitions from lowbrow to middlebrow aren’t seamless — but the overall effect is completely charming. The big attraction is Carell’s performance, which is more nuanced and feels more complete than I had any reason to suspect. He has to play Andy as a sort of overgrown kid, an intelligent, fully functional adult who has, for some reason, never seen fit to develop the sort of social skills that generally characterize adult relations. It’s a surprisingly mature big-screen turn from a guy who cut his teeth on deadpan TV comedy, and it lends an essential humanity to a one-joke character that badly needed to develop in three dimensions.
On the road to true love, as it turns out, there are a lot of dick jokes and a lot of gay jokes — those are actually pretty funny in context — and a line-up of stereotypes, including a cast of bit-part women who seem scary (because they know what they want) or hapless (because they’re bubble-headed) or some combination. There are some grace notes as well. Andy’s collection of mint-condition, sealed in plastic action figures underscores his nerd status, but also functions as metaphor for a life lived in plastic. At one point Andy throws a little pity party for himself, asking if anybody understands how hard it is for a kid to keep his toys under wraps instead of playing with them, and it’s a poignant character note because it’s psychologically suggestive of Carell’s status in his adult life — but it isn’t dwelled upon. AndThe 40 Year-Old Virgin is, in general, clever enough that it never quite stops to congratulate itself on how smart it is.