The way things appear to be going, there may not be much in the way of negativity hurled at the new bawdy comedy “The 40 Year-Old Virgin", so consider this equal time for the less impressed. I wanted to love this movie, really. A comedy starring the up-and-coming Steve Carell, co-written and directed by Judd “Freaks and Geeks" Apatow? Surely those guys could create a hilarious and awkward character piece about a sorry stooge that all of us obsessive geeky types secretly pray to God we'll never become? Despite the title's accurate blatantness, I went in confident that the talent involved was assurance enough that this would not be the mean-spirited romp that it sounds like it would otherwise be. I was wrong. “The 40 year-Old Virgin" does boast a higher laugh-per-minute ratio than fellow formulaic R-rated comedy “The Wedding Crashers", but sorely lacks the heart of that film, something essential for this to truly succeed. Like the carefree sex that the main character's buddies send him after in the film, you'll have a rollicking good time during the movie, but may have good reason to feel guilty afterwards.
The big problems with the film begin and end with Carell's character Andy, the titular forty year-old virgin. Andy, like so many guys out there, is socially awkward and into stuff such as painting lead figures and toy collecting, things the world considers geeky and unacceptable for a man his age. He rides a bike to his job, which is a technician at a big electronics super store, and tends to keep to himself. That is, until his co-workers (Paul Rudd as the insecure one, Romany Malco as the womanizing one, and Seth Rogen as the sexually freaky one) goad him into a late night card game, where he is forced to show his hand, so to speak. It comes out that Andy has never done the deed, and like so many comedies before this, the mission becomes to get him laid by just about any means necessary. Co-writers Apatow and Carrel have fallen into a trap of needing to creatively distance themselves from their main character, thus forcing us to observe his comedic idiosyncrasies from the standpoint of the world that shuns him, rather than letting us into his world, to relate to him. I believe that from the latter point of view, Andy would still be a funny specimen to watch as he is pressured into finding a girlfriend, but we'd also have the added benefit of truly caring what happens to him. As it stands now, the last shot of the movie might as well be Andy shrugging sheepishly as he is sent off to a life of prison rape, having been arrested and sentenced for being a, gasp, forty year old virgin! (Don't worry, that's not what happens.)
Another problem is the length of the film. Clocking in at nearly two hours – at least twenty minutes too long for a comedy of this nature - it is evident that Apatow and his editing staff were so in love with so much of the funny stuff going on in their movie, they couldn't bear to see any of it cut. While I'm certain that in reality they did in fact cut some material (gotta save something for that inevitable unrated DVD release, right?), much of the expendable material that appears in the film (Andy's wild ride with a drunk girl, most of a subplot involving a huge box of pornography, just to name two instances) is funny, sure, but not THAT funny. It would've been perfectly at home as DVD deleted scenes. But more to point of the film's overlong running time is the mistreatment of the Andy character in the script phase. When the filmmakers start off by essentially cruelly pointing and laughing at him, they need all the more time to somehow transform him into someone we should care about, and hence, continue watching. Again, a little simple humanity could've worked to avoid this altogether. Of course, there are other storytelling problems that are common of over-zealous first-time feature filmmakers, such as drifting narrative focus (do we really need quite so much of his work buddies?), and an over-abundance of character roadblocks (is it necessary to have both another woman at the end AND the huge box of pornography to threaten his happy ending?), but these aren't what hurts the movie the most.
But enough of the Syd Field stuff. Perhaps what really got to me about this film was how I went in wanting to identify with the geekiness of the main character, (but just to clarify, not his situation – I'm happily married with a kid on the way, thank you very much) hoping to be allowed to embrace his socially unacceptable hobbies, and instead being told that those very hobbies are the problem. Sure, an apartment full of mint-in-the-package action figures isn't going to impress most single women, but I know first hand that such a collection doesn't have to stop you from finding the right woman. It may seem insignificant, but at the same time, the movie goes far enough to show us that having all this stuff and caring for it is part of who Andy is. Anyone who's ever passionately collected anything, be it sports memorabilia, collectors plates, comic books, or yes, toys, can understand that. Basically, the film blames Andy's hobbies for his lack of female companionship, when in reality, there's always more to it than that. Even Andy says at one point that his virginity is a personal lifestyle choice – but when Steve Carell delivers the line, it sounds more like an excuse than an explanation.
So you may be wondering if I liked anything about this movie. Perhaps it's shocking, but I did laugh (although often in spite of myself), a lot. Although I've been picking nits with the handling of Carell's character Andy, the fact still remains that the actor is a naturally funny guy, and even through the problems, still finds comedic ways to shine. The bawdy buddy-buddy bond of Andy's three main co-workers, ever accusing each other of being gay and whatnot, is purely believable and realistic. Catherine Keener is noteworthy as the eventual target of Andy's legitimate affection, but it is Elizabeth Banks as the ever-horny other woman that most red-blooded males will remember. As appealing as she is, it is perplexing that the film ultimately deems her character a sexual freak, when really, nothing she ever does or says strikes me as THAT freaky. But hey, I'm not going to complain too loudly about an attractive female character being too hot on screen in lieu of her being scary.
Having to be the one to tell people that movies like this aren't good is like being thrust into the role of prudish disciplinarian. No one wants to do it because no one wants to listen to you. Of course, it's also like trying to break up a cockfight. Everyone is having a rowdy good time, but darn it, the cockfighting must end. Likewise, the world must know that “The 40 Year-Old Virgin" is, hidden beneath its wacky surface, a mean-spirited romp. In this priorities-whacked contemporary culture of ours, a forty year-old virgin is the absolute worst thing one could be, and still be the topic of a comedic feature film. After all, no one would go see “The AIDS-Ridden Leper". Before I saw the movie, I was wondering if anyone in this sexually charged youth-obsessed world would go see a movie about a guy who is not only forty years old, but also a virgin. The film has been thoroughly promoted, (that poster IS hilarious,) and with a few major critics are already giving it thumbs up, I doubt they'll have a problem drawing a crowd. If you're looking forward to this, and nothing I said is going to stop you, just go knowing not to expect “Freaks and Geeks" for the middle-age set. You will laugh, though. Just be prepared for that tinge of guilt the morning after.
- Jim Tudor