Steve Carell’s career has been growing like wildfire over the past few years. He first gained notoriety on “The Daily Show” as one of John Stewart’s roving reporters. From there he went on to UPS commercials… ok maybe that was a step in the wrong direction. But a small supporting role in Bruce Almighty gave Steve all the room he needed to steal scenes, and he’s been gobbling up new fans ever since. Last year he killed a man with a triton in Anchorman, and earlier this year he terrorized office workers on television in the underrated American version of “The Office”. But it’s The 40 Year-Old Virgin that is the nearly forty three year-old Steve Carell’s big break, the lead role in a film that’ll go down as one of the funniest movies ever made. Yeah, it’s that good.
Thing is, this isn’t simply a collection of wacky gags and over-the-top caricatures. It’s a comedy with well developed characters, people you actually end up caring about, living fairly real lives and doing real things. The film’s greatness doesn’t come from the stupid, or the crass (though it doesn’t shy away from that) but from the inspired and surreal. It’s the sort of humor that’ll stand the test of time and leave The 40 Year-Old Virgin as a bona fide classic.
When the film opens though, it’s the story of a loner. Andy Stitzer (Steve Carell) is an uber-geek pushing forty. No, he doesn’t live in his mother’s basement. He’s not a loser, just a quiet, kindhearted, geeky guy. His modest but nice apartment is packed to the hilt with the stuff of nerd dreams. Andy has been alone for so long he’s filled his life with things other than people to make his life happy. Every inch of his apartment is appointed with incredibly cool movie collectibles, action-figures, movie posters, and a tricked up video game collection. It’s nerd Valhalla. He loves his stuff and though he has no one to share any of it with, he’s not exactly miserable. But you get the sense that maybe it’s only because he doesn’t know what he’s missing.
Each day Andy rides a bicycle to his job at Smart Tech, a run of the mill electronics store. On an average Monday he sits behind the stockroom counter, and listens to the other younger employees talk about their wild weekends in Tijuana. The highlight of his weekend was a failed attempt to make an egg salad sandwich, and he tells them so. Fellow stock clerk Cal (Seth Rogan) subsequently suspects him of being a serial killer. But, one night the Smart Tech crew needs a fifth for their poker game and Andy is the only person available. Andy is invited, and when he shows up finds himself pressed to trade sex stories with the guys. After describing the female breast as a bag of sand, the guys figure out that he’s a virgin.
Andy is mortified, but Cal, Dave (Paul Rudd), and Jay (Romany Malco) take him on as their own pet project. They don’t make fun of him, but seem to legitimately want to help him. What’s really wonderful about the film is how magnificently realized the relationships between these characters become. Andy starts the movie as a complete loner, and suddenly he’s deluged with friends, each with their own sets of problems and weirdness. The camaraderie between the guys at the store is what carries the movie, with the best humor coming not from staged coincidences but rather the natural evolution of their relationship and the effect they have on Andy’s personality.
We soon learn that Andy is still a virgin because at some point, he just gave up. His new friends help relight the fire under him and he finds himself willing to try again. Andy wants more than sex, he’s looking for companionship. First though, maybe he ought to test things out on some strange. “Is it true that if you don’t use it, you lose it?” a nervous Andy asks a sex councilor. He’s a mess of barely hidden nerves. But the movie never resorts to mocking Andy, instead Judd Apatow and Steve Carell’s script tries to help us understand him, while finding ridiculously huge laughs in his predicament. Making fun of a character like this would have been easy, but The 40 Year-Old Virgin takes the much harder road of trying to laugh along with him. It pays off to deliver genuine, heartfelt guffaws that won’t like so many cheap comedies filled with even cheaper gags, be quickly wiped away and forgotten.
The film’s comedic arsenal is formidable. It never settles for the easy gag, instead it builds and builds and builds to the bigger, better, and completely unexpected, plot moving joke. Director Judd Apatow allows the natural talent and warmth of his cast to shine in every scene. Paul Rudd is brilliant as the lovesick peacenik of the group, Seth Rogen is hilarious as the sarcastic malcontent, and Romany Malco is a revelation as their charismatic ladies man. Where has this guy been? The chemistry between Andy and his new group of friends is amazing, and the way they play off Steve and he off them is magic.
Apatow helps his great cast along with hilarious musical cues and sight gags, as in a scene where Steve Carell contemplates a newly acquired box of porn. The moment could have become crass and dumb, but timed to the perfect music cue it becomes one of comedy’s most classic moments. The soundtrack is simply killer. That’s not to say the film shies away from the bizarre and offensive. We’re talking sex here and The 40 Year-Old Virgin pulls no punches. But it manages to be raunchy and odd without being stupid, there’s hilarity in the truth of our sexual existence, and Apatow digs deep to find it.
The real turning point for Andy comes when he meets Trish (Catherine Keener), a middle-aged woman who runs a hard to explain store across from Smart Tech. Andy is instantly smitten with her, and she with him. But he worries, (and we along with him) would she accept him if she knew of his inadequacies? You can’t help but get wrapped up in what becomes of Andy, and perhaps it is actually caring about what’s happening that makes the movie so outrageously funny. The 40 Year-Old Virgin is a special movie, a rare convergence of talent and off-kilter wit in a wonderfully realized, connected story. This isn’t just a slapstick comedy about a guy losing his virginity; it’s more than that, a gleefully bizarre (occasionally raunchy) story about living life. I haven’t laughed this much in years. You’ll leave the theater smiling, clapping, and gasping for breath. The 40 Year-Old Virgin is a masterpiece of comedy and heart.
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