With the perfect blend of tender sincerity and laugh out loud outrageousness, "The 40 Year-Old Virgin" is the comedic highlight of Summer 2005, a season that has defied film industry expectations by manifesting unexpected comedy successes while largely turning a blind eye to the expected big-budget blockbusters of seasons past.
Steve Carell, largely known from six years on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and his scene-stealing, side-splitting appearances in several other comedies in recent years, has found the perfect role allowing him to combine his genuine likeability and nice guy persona with his tremendous gifts of communicating sarcasm and darkly comic lines with a completely straight face.
Carell plays Andy Stitzer, a 40-year-old single guy who works at Smart Tech, an electronics superstore while having numerous collections of the "action figure" and video game variety. Andy doesn't get out much, other than visiting his upstairs neighbor couple to watch "Survivor." He rides his bike to work and lives an otherwise quiet life until one day his co-workers, desperate for a fifth for a poker game, reluctantly invite Andy.
Of course, the male bonding at the card game inevitably leads to conversations about sexual conquests...a conversation that inevitably leads to Andy's awkwardly funny over-exaggeration of his own sexual history with the use of stereotypical early teen sexual terminology that instantly gives him away. (EXAMPLE: Describing a woman's breasts as feeling like a bag of sand). It finally comes out that Andy is, in fact, a virgin (which leads to two funny flashbacks that help explain partially why this is true).
After initially being humiliated once the word gets out at work, Andy's life begins to change as his new buddies become determined to help Andy lose his virginity.
After about 15 minutes of "Virgin," I found myself concerned that the film would take a condescending, low-brow approach to Andy as so many comedy films do towards such characters anymore. Yet, suddenly, the tone of the script seemed to shift. Where the characters, especially Andy's buddies, had seemed shallow and willing to humiliate him...suddenly, friendships blossomed and their motivations took an upward turn. It became apparent that their own discomfort with Andy's virginity was, in fact, unresolved issues of their own.
There's Paul Rudd, as David, whose inability to let go of an intense but brief relationship has turned him into an emotional (if not physical) stalker of his ex-girlfriend. Rudd has always displayed the ability to handle deeply flawed but lovable characters, and turns in a strong performance here with a sort of f***ed up sincerity.
As Jay, Romany Malco is the "player" of the group. He's a well-built, handsome African-American who cheats on his girlfriend and becomes both teacher and mentor to Andy. Yet, here again, this character could easily have been a caricature but is not. Malco adds to Jay a tremendous sincerity...an obvious affection for Andy that makes you believe that even while handing out horrid romantic advice he truly cares and believes in the advice he's given. It leads to remarkably funny scenes, including the widely advertised hair waxing scene (which is, trust me, funnier than what's in the trailer). Malco has had multiple film appearances, but may be most remembered for his portrayal of M.C. Hammer in the TV film on Hammer's life.
As Cal, a disheveled but well meaning oddball, Seth Rogen is funny and offbeat without ever crossing the line of caricature. Rogen writes for Da Ali G show, and had an appearance in both Anchorman and Donnie Darko. he sort of has a Will Ferrell type presentation to him that is both lovable and laughable.
When the three friends combine together to "help" Andy lose his virginity, the somewhat predictable results begin occurring ranging from a hilariously gross attempt to go home with a drunk woman from a club to an encounter with a transvestite and others.
Finally, unexpectedly, Andy meets Trish, a divorcee with 3 kids. Watching this relationship develop over time is constantly heart-warming but hilarious...perhaps this is most due to the wonderful chemistry between Carell and Catherine Keener, who gives a simply wonderful performance here providing her character with tremendous depth.
Hilarious supporting performances are also turned in by Jane Lynch as Paula, Andy's boss and Elizabeth Banks as bookstore clerk Beth, whom Andy hits on early in the film with funny, but sweet, results. Banks has had secondary roles in a variety of high-profile films including as Miss Brant in the Spiderman series, Seabiscuit and Catch Me If You Can. Other solid performances include Leslie Mann and Chelsea Smith...if you watch carefully, you'll also see several of the smaller role players actually playing multiple roles throughout the film.
Carell co-wrote the script with director Judd Apatow, and you can feel their respect and affection for the characters. All of the deeply flawed characters have their flaws brought out for laughs...BUT, they are never treated with a sense of cruelty. It's a difficult balance, but it's consistently achieved throughout the film.
Production design is simple but effective, accompanying music (mostly songs) is outstanding and the overall look of the characters is remarkably human and feels very real.
The ending came completely unexpected, but somehow fit the overall mood perfectly. The resolution for these characters made me smile...because, once again, every character was treated with respect for who they were BUT also allowed to grow into who they could be...it was the journey that brought laughs, not cheap laughs at the character's expense. It's a novel, but beautiful approach to comedy that brings delightful results here.
The film is just short of being an "A" range film...at 116 minutes, it runs a tad long considering there are a few lulls in the comedy. Likewise, I found myself uncomfortable with the scene of Andy taking Trish's youngest daughter to Planned Parenthood. Really...come on? What kind of parent would allow that to happen and not actually go? It rang as a cathartic set-up in a film that feels remarkably genuine most of the time.
"The Wedding Crashers" has, perhaps, more belly laughs per minute yet "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" is, without a doubt, my choice for the summer's best comedy. A smart script, incredible performances (with NO celebrity cameos), and a perfect blend of heart and hilarity make "The 40 Year-Old Virgin" the perfect film to close out your summer viewing.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic