I’m a virgin. I always have been.
— Andy Stitzer (Steve Carell)
Hairy-chested Andy Stitzer’s (Steve Carell) teen years are far behind him, yet early adolescence lingers. The evidence is everywhere in his apartment, from the action figures lining his walls to a childlike daily schedule (his evenings consist of TV and videogames) affixed to the fridge. Never having learned to drive, he bikes to his job at an electronics store, where coworkers find him a little off (one says he fits the loner profile of a serial killer). A big night means watching Survivor with the elderly couple upstairs — Andy brings the soda.
While he seems happy with this insular, limited existence, others think Andy’s due for a change. “That boy needs to get laid,” the neighbor remarks to his wife. “Tell me something I don’t know,” she says. In fact, midlife virginity is Andy’s dark secret. It’s also the roundabout reason for his solitude, as secrets are easier to keep when there’s no one around to uncover them.
On that score, Andy’s luck runs out early in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Invited to play poker with the guys from work (he drinks Fanta to their Bud), he finds himself in the hot seat when talk turns to sex. In a moment both hilarious and heartbreaking, he tries and fails to bluff, protesting that he’s “porked” tons of women even as the guys see the truth. If Andy is terrified that his secret is out, his coworkers are stunned by thoughts of all the tail he’s been missing. They immediately vow to help him tear that scarlet V off his chest.
The guys are buffoons. Jay (Romany Malco) cheats on his girlfriend constantly, Cal (Seth Rogen) wants nothing from women but sex, and David (Paul Rudd, continuing his upswing) is lovesick to the point of stalking a girl he dated for four months, two years ago. (Changing her email address is just another romantic game she’s playing with him, he assures Andy.) They’re the emotionally blind leading the sexually blind, to mostly hilarious results.
As you might expect, the film is dense with knowing sex humor, from morning boners to condom mishaps to the token trannie hooker. Andy’s new buddies make him the guinea pig for all manner of horrifying dates and “updates” — as when Jay insists on an (aborted) chest wax. It’s the film’s funniest scene, helped along by Carell’s insistence that they really wax his chest, and the true laughter emanating from his costars as he screams in pain. When all’s said and done, only five patches of hair are gone, leaving him resembling “a man-o-lantern,” according to Cal.
Painfully funny as these moments are, it’s the intermittent drama that elevates Virgin above its sex comedy kin. Writers Carell and Judd Apatow (directing his first film) skillfully keep Andy the person, not the stereotype, front and center. Already revered for his obnoxious turns on The Daily Show and Anchorman, among others, Carell proves himself a genuine leading man, somehow maintaining Andy’s good-hearted dignity under extreme circumstances (in the film’s most emphatic gross-out scene, a drunken pickup vomits on him after a death-defying drive, then says she’ll still have sex with him if he wants, which… he doesn’t). Here, as in Apatow’s TV series Freaks and Geeks (he executive produced creator Paul Feig’s one-season wonder), a one-note title evolves into a 3-D landscape of guffaws and awws.
All of this makes Virgin a welcome improvement on Wedding Crashers, the summer’s first R comedy. Where Crashers satisfied itself with a clumsy mix of raunch and leaden traditional romance, Carell and Apatow aim higher, assimilating their source material (the sexual blunders of American Pie, the horny men vibe of Old School, the inept tutelage offered Jon Favreau’s character in Swingers) into an affecting whole: Andy’s world. Because Carell makes us believe in and care about Andy, the third-act drama of his relationship with Trish (Catherine Keener, ever good) feels as organic to the story as the gut-busting laughs that preceded it.
A divorcee who helps him sell his action figures for big bucks on eBay, Trish finds Andy a sweet, perplexing suitor. Though they nearly sleep together on their first date, she later suggests they backpedal, an idea he’s only too happy to embrace. The pressure off, they’re free to make out like teenagers and fall in love, a happy interlude the film covers with smart economy, so as to spend more time on getting to know this “hot grandma” (she’s struggling to keep her middle daughter pregnancy-free through high school), as well as the couple’s first big fight, occasioned when she wonders why he still doesn’t want to sleep with her after nearly 20 dates. Fearful of confessing the truth, Andy changes the subject, accusing her of “making him” sell his beloved collectibles. He got Iron Man when he was in second grade, and never opened the box. Does she know how hard it is for a kid to do that?
Trish might not understand yet, but viewers do. Title notwithstanding, the big question here isn’t whether Andy will finally get laid or even get the girl. The poor boy — er, man — has spent a lifetime making peace with restraint. From such a vantage point, nothing appears scarier than saying yes… to growing up.