40-Year-Old Virgin, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 08/20/05 18:27:06

"Steve Carell, ladies and gentlemen. Steve Carell."
5 stars (Awesome)

Anybody could have made this movie. But few people could have made it good.

I’m talking about “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” starring Steve Carell, who co-wrote the script with director Judd Apatow (“Freaks and Geeks,” “Undeclared”). I keep thinking about the many ways this movie could have gone so very wrong, most of them involving a former cast member from “Saturday Night Live.” But here, Carell and Apatow manage to pull off that rarest of feats, creating a sex comedy that’s sweet, intelligent, and actually very, very funny.

In a recent online discussion between several critics, Scott Weinberg asked why it’s so hard to make a sex comedy that actually works. The general consensus seemed to be that Hollywood’s preference to market to teenage boys, topped with their tendencies to hire filmmakers who never grew out of their teenage mentality (namely, dick and fart jokes coupled with a general fear of the opposite sex), means the public will get an onslaught of increasingly brainless projects. Plus, Hollywood is lazy. It’s easy to film Rob Schneider getting his genitals stuck in a farm animal. Creating intelligent stories and complex characters with real emotions? That takes work, man.

More importantly, sex comedies that are worth anything are the kind that take risks by revealing the pure reality of sex, warts and all. (Although hopefully warts are not involved in your case, but that’s another story.) Juvenile comedies take a cartoonish look at the subject; the less real it is, the safer it is for both audiences and filmmakers who may squirm at the notion of being confronted by their inadequacies in the bedroom. As Collin Souter so eloquently put it, “you sometimes have to confront the subject head on and draw the comedy from the cold, hard truths about sex.”

Which is exactly where Carell and Apatow go in their film. Consider the scene in which Carell’s character, Andy Stitzer, is confronted with a potential first sexual encounter. Hoping not to reveal his sexual innocence to his girlfriend (Catherine Keener), he refrains from asking for help with putting on a condom. Another movie would have taken this moment and reduced it to a series of gags involving Andy getting “comically” injured. Sure, there is one gag in which Andy obviously hurts himself, but it’s not the cheap slapstick it could have been. There’s a purity and an honesty to this moment: all modern men have come to a point in their lives when they’ve had to confront a condom for the first time. That Andy is not a teenager adds to the humor, of course, but it does not force the punchlines. What we are watching in this scene is a child in a man’s body attempting to come to terms with something as bizarre as a prophylactic.

I would say that this is the funniest scene in the film, but I would be wrong. That distinction goes to the soon-to-be-infamous chest waxing scene. Convinced by his friends that women will be more attracted to him if he sports a bare chest, Andy agrees to go through the torture of having his ample hair (seriously, it rivals the chest of Robin Williams) pulled out through hot wax and tape.

The magic of this sequence is that none of it is fake. That’s Carell’s real hair being pulled out, that’s his real blood we’re seeing rush to the surface. This bit was captured in one take, and it left Carell stuck with the silliest assortment of body hair for what I imagine must have been months. You think losing weight or shaving your head is the mark of a quality actor? Try walking around with a “man-o-lantern.” That’s dedication, my friends.

In fact, “Virgin” has Carell to thank for its entire success. The former “Daily Show” cast member - who stole scenes in “Bruce Almighty” and “Anchorman” and who made the American remake of “The Office” actually work - now proves that he’s the funniest man on the planet, working his way through a series of embarrassing sexual situations and coming out a champion. Above all, he’s a master of verbal comedy; just listen to his line deliveries, which sing in their perfection.

But he’s also something quite unexpected: a leading man. Carell brings a lovable charm to his role, and the script ensures that underneath the snarky one-liners and ridiculous situations, there’s a genuine human being. We take to the character of Andy immediately and find it incredibly easy to root for him throughout the story. Carell refuses to deliver a one-note, one-dimensional character here. He gives Andy depth, reality. The humor, tenderness, and ultimate joy of this film would not have worked at all without Carell in the title role.

Carell does not carry the film alone; he’s accompanied here by a supporting cast that’s on his level. Seth Rogen, Romany Malco, and the indispensable Paul Rudd play Andy’s friends/co-workers, three guys who are all as clueless about sex and relationships as Andy - only they’ve had experience, which means they get to dish out the advice. Keener, meanwhile, provides a lovely turn as Andy’s potential girlfriend; she’s so endearing in the role that we begin hoping for a happy ending the moment she walks on screen. And Kat Dennings adds a nice touch as Keener’s troubled teenage daughter who forges a reluctant friendship with Andy; their scenes together are refreshingly sweet. The movie also finds space for familiar faces Elizabeth Banks, Jane Lynch, and Leslie Mann. All work brilliantly with each other and off each other.

While watching “Virgin,” I was originally put off by the way the script follows a fairly standard formula - boy meets girl, boy loses girl, audience hopes for boy and girl to reunite. It seemed a cheat to being a formulaic concept into such a smart story. But I realize, in retrospect, that I had it backward: Carell and Apatow weren’t shoving familiarity into their clever idea, they were infusing cleverness into a familiar plot. This is a Hollywood romantic comedy as filtered through the comic genius of Carell and the astute awareness of Apatow. They use the formula but do not depend on it. There’s no desperation here, as there is in so many other romantic comedies. There’s only charm, joy, and laughs. Many, many, many laughs.

Not even an ill-fitting (albeit funny) final joke that comes out of nowhere and goes against the reality of the film (you’ll know what I mean when you see it) can stop “Virgin” from being a true work of brilliance. This is a sex comedy that actually knows what it’s doing, but more than that, it’s an honest coming of age film. That Andy is decades past the usual age for such a thing only makes the story richer. Andy Spitzer is an unforgettable screen character, and his creators, Carell and Apatow, are undeniable talents.

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