Cherry on Top

Some art-house programmer would be wise to schedule a double bill of The Aristocrats, Paul Provenza’s talkumentary about the dirtiest joke ever told, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, director Judd Apatow’s near-brilliant movie about a grown-up geek who has simply lost interest in trying to get laid. Both offer countless giddy variations on simple, archaic and utterly foul jokes involving sticking body parts into other body parts. Except for a stray nipple and a quick glimpse at some relatively tame porn in Virgin, both movies elicit their deep, exhausting laughs solely from the use of the foulest language imaginable.

The virgin is played by former Daily Show “correspondent” Steve Carell, inching toward surprising leading-man status with his role here and in NBC’s The Office, in which he’s so dry, you could sandpaper old furniture with his delivery. In Virgin, as action-figure-obsessed Andy Stitzer, Carell reveals himself capable of playing it sincere and straight without being a dull-tipped arrow. In the hands of any other filmmaker, Andy would be the biggest schmuck in the room — a creepy, goofy idiot in love with plastic people because he can’t connect to real ones. But co-writers Carell and Apatow love Andy, perhaps because deep down they used to be Andy, and they refuse to make him the butt of the joke. He’s tortured (Carell appears to have actually had much of his human monkey suit waxed off in one painfully hysterical sequence), humiliated (drenched in the daiquiri-flavored puke of a would-be date, played by Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann), and mocked relentlessly by men and women who find his lifestyle inexplicable at best and disturbing at worst. But rather than laugh at Andy, the audience feels for him. He’s no Lonely Guy, drab and listless and self-pitying, just a single guy who has found other things (comic books, video games, the awful rock band Asia) with which to fill his empty moments.

Apatow has been writing about Andy for much of his career — as a writer and director on Freaks and Geeks and as creator of Undeclared, comedies about the romantically hapless that could be considered sort of prequels to Virgin, and not merely because it shares actors with both of those TV shows. He has particular affection for the man who doesn’t quite belong to any group.

Ultimately, of course, Andy meets his perfect match in Trish (Catherine Keener), already a grandmother in her mid-40s and the proprietor of a storefront in which people come to sell their junk on eBay. Theirs feels like a real relationship between two damaged people, at once playful and awkward as they agree not to have sex till they know each other better.

Virgin is astoundingly astute and wondrously clever, written with more care and joy than any hundred comedies to come out of Hollywood in years; even the throwaway lines and casual asides are a panic, funnier than the most underlined and italicized bit of dialogue in Wedding Crashers. And in its gleefully perverse, decidedly obscene way, The 40-Year-Old Virgin is the best sort of romantic comedy — a movie in which the characters earn their happiness. It’s a dick joke with heart.

Categories: Movies