10 SEPTEMBER 2005, Page 45

Sexual combat

Mark Steyn

The 40-Year-Old Virgin 15, selected cinemas 71ze 40-Year-Old Virgin is Hollywood’s 1 version of a professional virgin. It’s vulgar and foul-mouthed and relentlessly crotch-centred, yet at the same time it insists that at heart it’s sweet and innocent. The plot is in the title: there’s a virgin, he’s 40, the film will resolve the situation. We first meet Andy, the eponymous virgin, on a Monday morning, arriving at work at an audio-video store. His colleague Cal has had a typical weekend: he and a buddy went down to Tijuana and decided to check out a club offering a woman engaging in sexual intercourse with a horse (which isn’t how Cal puts it), and he thought it would be kind of cool because, after all, it’s a woman having sex with a horse but it turned out to be kind of gross and he found himself feeling a bit sorry for the woman. And, indeed, the horse.

And then Cal turns to Andy and says, ‘So how was your weekend?’ And Andy explains that he had this terrible craving for an egg salad sandwich, so he went out and bought a dozen eggs, and spent three hours making the mayonnaise and then found that he wasn’t hungry, which was just as well, because he’d forgotten to get any bread. So, all in all, it was a quiet weekend, but it wasn’t too bad.

And that opening sets up how Steve Carell, who stars as Andy and is also the film’s co-writer, and Judd Apatow, his director, producer and writing partner, intend to play this thing. After a poker game, the lads fall into swapping sexual exploits and Andy is doing a pretty good job of keeping his end up anecdotally — as long as he sticks to generalities about ‘nailing’ and so forth. But then the other guys demand specifics — c’mon, what were her tits like? — and Andy says they were great, they felt like bags of sand. And the boys look at each other and realise that Andy hasn’t a clue what women’s breasts feel like.

Pulling off a comedy about a middleaged virgin isn’t as easy as it sounds. The obvious trap would be to make Andy’s colleagues cool guys who are great with chicks. Instead, Carell and Apatow supply him with three buddies who are coarse and sex-crazed but, in their own way, as dysfunctional as he is. You laugh at them at least as much as you laugh at Andy: on the field of sexual combat, they’re all fall guys. And their so-called worldly advice consists for the most part in recommending their own pathologies — always hit on drunk bitches, as the supposedly accomplished ladies’ man Jay tells Andy.

I was going to say that, in a sense, the film manages to indict the banal sexualisation of contemporary culture at least as much as it does Andy’s virginity. But, of course, that would be total rubbish. All the movie wants to do is have its cake and eat it. In some respects, this is the familiar faux-self-flagellation of guy-comedy: you expose men as chronically shallow, insensitive, drunk, obscene, selfish Neanderthals, and then pretend that this is devastating self-criticism rather than gleeful self-celebration. But the strategy works better here than it usually does, because it’s built round a goofy character whom Carell makes genuinely endearing. And the profanity pile-ups are so ubiquitous that after a while they part company from any actual meaning. The best ones achieve a kind of poetry, as when Jay cautions Andy alliteratively that he’s ‘putting pussy on a pedestal’ as if it’s the Greek goddess Pussyana. In fact, Andy seems quite comfortable as a buttoned-down bachelor, which may be why one of his sexual instructors decides to embrace Andy-like celibacy. This leads to some bickering between the lads. (Dave to Cal: ‘You know how I know you’re gay? Because you like Coldplay.’) Needless to say, their advice leads Andy down some obvious blind alleys — the drunk broad throws up her strawberry daiquiri over him, the body wax ends after the first nipple, the predatory store boss is too interested in deflowering him, etc. And then Trish enters the picture. She’s also fortysomething and, as she’s played by Catherine Keener, very real. The scenes between her and Andy are warm and skilful but the movie’s already running long and most of the comic energy starts to drain away a good 40 minutes before the end. I found myself blowing hot and cold about this picture. I’d be roaring with laughter, then listless and too aware of the contrivances, then mildly amused, then feeling that I vaguely disliked it, then back to square one. The film has a strong premise, but it never quite consummates it, it’s a tease that doesn’t deliver, it’s as if it’s scared to go all the way, it can’t keep it up. That said, the big studios put out so many terrible mirthless yukfests these days — the black version of The Honeymooners being the latest — as to make you wonder if the Hollywood comedy isn’t going the way of the musical and the western. By those standards, The 40-Year-Old Virgin knows what it’s doing. Which may be why the ending — an al fresco production number of ‘The Age Of Aquarius’ from Hair —is both utterly surreal and just right.