The 40-Year-Old Virgin is really funny. I laughed out loud more than I have at any movie in a long time. The packed crowd (in a late show on a Monday night) roaring along with me probably helped too, but I saw Wedding Crashers in a similar setting and didn’t laugh nearly as much.
They should show Wedding Crashers and Virgin side-by-side in screenwriting classes. Besides the fact that Virgin is actually raunchier, and genuinely funnier, a crucial difference is that it has genuine heart, whereas the heart in Wedding Crashers feels as tacked-on as the fake Purple Hearts the guys use to score free drinks. Screenwriting classes are always trying to drill in how good movies come from starting with a character, being true to a character, and caring about a character. The difference between these two movies demonstrates exactly why this is important. The strength of the characters is why Virgin remains enjoyable throughout its bloated, nearly two-hour running time, while Wedding Crashers starts to wear on you.
There’s also the problem that Wedding Crashers is predicated on a couple of guys who, while charismatic, would seem like awful people if the story didn’t go soft on them really early, which it does. Meanwhile, the title character in Virgin is so innocent, the movie can continue to pile on the raunchiness without turning ugly. But we’ll put that aside for now. The point is, in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the audience cares about Steve Carell’s Andy Stitzer character. In Wedding Crashers, we pretty much only care about the characters because we like Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, not because we care about the guys they’re playing. In Virgin, when something bad happens to Andy, there are not just laughs, but gasps and sympathetic awws. The audience laughs the first time it sees his enormous collection of action figures, but by the second half of the film, the audience gasps along with him when the figures’ precious original packaging is threatened.
Of course there are laughs at the expense of Andy’s virginity and nerdiness, but there just as many laughs at the expense of his sexually active friends, or the crazy women he dates, all of whom have as many issues as he does, if not more. And the laughs at Andy’s expense never feel like cheap shots—they’re truthful and carefully observed. (The one exception is a scene where Andy’s exaggerated confusion over how to use a condom seriously strains credibility, but I can forgive it.) One reviewer was surprised that there are no Star Trek jokes, but I think that’s emblematic of Judd Apatow and Steve Carell’s respect for the character. A Star Trek joke is a cheap joke and an easy joke. But not all geeks are into Star Trek, and Apatow knows that. Andy Stitzer is not a Trek geek, and it makes sense that he isn’t.
One of the first shots of the movie shows Andy asleep in his bedroom, with a prominently displayed poster for Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie on the wall. Not just MST3K, but the movie, which somehow feels even more brilliantly obscure. Later, out of focus in the background, you can just make out a Back to the Future poster. This is a geek’s room as conceived by people who were/are real geeks and have an affection for geek obsessions even as they play them for laughs. We can laugh at Andy and care about him at the same time because he’s real, not a caricature.
He is also a character for whom finding a willing woman is ultimately not the biggest obstacle to having sex. Apatow and Carell have found a clever balance with a character who is neither the horny but disgusting guy who could never get a girl nor a sanctimonious type. He has tried to have sex and has come close, yet, after some early disasters, has chosen not to make further attempts. As in Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, Apatow recognizes that males can experience sexual anxiety too. Sex can be scary for some guys, and not all guys automatically jump at the chance to bed any girl who’s available.
The supporting cast is excellent. Some reviews have criticized the scenes of guys trading “homophobic” wisecracks like “Know how I know you’re gay? You like Coldplay.” (This particular line is a wonderfully gratuitous slam that reduces the audience’s Coldplay fans to insulted silence.) But it’s harmless and without actual hostility, and it captures casual straight-guy banter perfectly. I continue to envy young Seth Rogen of Freak and Geeks and Undeclared, and the promising writing/acting career he’s got between his collaborations with Apatow and his memorable role here. Surely he’s only a step away from being one of those guys who makes cameos in every movie. Carell gives his most appealing, nuanced performance yet as Andy. He’s likable and surprisingly relatable, and his characterization gives this very funny movie its surprising resonance.