Revenge of the Nerd
The makers of The 40-Year-Old Virgin should be commended for not settling with an obvious, easy approach. The premise practically begs for cheap shots and demeaning humor. If they didn't decide to deride the hapless protagonist for his lack of sexual experience, they could just as readily have played "let's-laugh-at-the-dork" for all the things he does that makes him the opposite of a sex symbol.
Well, inevitably, some of that type of humor is unavoidable in a movie like this. Thus, it's a nice surprise to see that writer/director Judd Apatow and writer/star Steve Carell have used it mainly to set up a chance for the main character, Andy (Carell), to show he has plenty of redeeming qualities in the end. This is a guy who is introduced to the audience as an action-figure collector and comic book reader, someone who has no social life on the weekends and who rides a bicycle to his stockroom job at an electronics store. Of course, this screams nerd, and we're quickly given a scenario where his more typical-guy co-workers decide to do their friend a favor by leading him to a more active scene -- one that involves women.
For the movie's first half, the comedy is predictable, but steadily we see that Andy is at least not embarrassed by the lifestyle and hobbies he's chosen. About the only thing he's really embarrassed about is his virginity, and this comes more from social pressures than anything else. A dopier movie wouldn't acknowledge this, but The 40-Year-Old Virgin gets mileage from buses with erotic advertisements, the prevalence in society of a callous sex-without-love attitude, and the constant pressure that comes from Andy's friends ribbing him, even if they mean it in a friendly way. Whether it means to or not -- and it's a bit hard to tell, since the movie seems to be as concerned about throwaway set gags as it is about the development of its lead character -- it creates and criticizes a world where sexual pressure comes from all sides, needlessly victimizing what are otherwise good-natured citizens.
In the second half of the movie, the original view given to the audience has been subverted -- Andy's friends look more like losers, much of it having to do with their attitudes toward sex, and Andy himself, luckless but determined and not totally helpless, becomes a character genuinely worth rooting for. It comes from the combination of a patient story arc -- one that involves an understandable sense of panic when faced with inexperience -- and Carell's performance. In creating a character with outwardly loser qualities but an inner sense of conviction that actually puts up a fight when faced with humiliating circumstances, Carell has achieved in his leading role debut what Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler can't seem to do with numerous movies under their belts. He's created a man-child in whom we can actually see the qualities of the man struggling to emerge out of the qualities of the child.
It's all played out against very crude humor, of course -- and a lot of it is going to be given a pass because the story ends up being so sweet. Still, it's a shame there's much of it there in the first place -- the odd rhythm with which they're thrown in (a lot of the crass jokes appear in isolated scenes that could almost have been placed anywhere and interchangeably throughout the movie) and their various comedic impacts (they're all kinds -- laugh-out-loud funny, groaners, gross-outs, squirmers, and duds) expose the movie's weaknesses: it seemed to want to do too much, as if it had a slew of ideas in mind and didn't know, at first, what tone to strive for.
Perhaps we should consider it fortunate, then, that The 40- Year-Old Virgin winds up to as good a finish as it does. With the help of the consistently funny Catherine Keener by his side in the latter half, Carell is able to use Andy and his concerns to anchor the movie and maintain a focus that it almost didn't seem to plan for. At the end of the day, Carell should be very happy -- he makes the most of his chance at the spotlight, and has increased the possibility of his becoming a household name with an effectively funny comedy.
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "R" for pervasive sexual content, language and some drug use.)