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Like the virgin

Steve Carell doesn't do it--with grace

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No movie title so far this year divulges its subject matter and personality more than The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Coupled with the kitschy yearbook-style photo gracing the film's ad poster, a prospective viewer might reasonably expect to see a biting, even mean-spirited comedy about a nerd wedded to a figment of adolescence, and his adult-age misadventures at getting laid.

Indeed, the opening credits montage feeds this preconception, as the only things keeping Andy Stitzer (Steve Carell) company during his solitary wake-up routine is morning wood and a collection of mint-condition action figures. Reporting for duty as an invoice checker at a Circuit City stand-in named Smart Tech, Andy recalls his "exciting" weekend spent trying to make a chicken salad sandwich from scratch. And later, some poker table guy-talk about past sexual conquests exposes Andy's celibacy when he describes a woman's breast as feeling "like a bag of sand."

The first signal that there's more going on here than a crude, cinematic character assassination comes when the surprisingly gentle ribbing Andy suffers from his coworkers quickly gives way to their firm, even loyal, resolve to help Andy cure his "problem." What follows is one of the funniest films of the year, and one of the slyest. This most predictable of plots slowly turns on its head as to both the target of its jokes and its notions of normal vs. dysfunctional.

Notwithstanding the sexual satire, much of the film's best humor derives from the disaffected, Office Space workaday dynamics of the Smart Tech crew. Spoofs of stunted social interaction are familiar territory to writer-director Judd Apatow, a former scribe for television series like The Larry Sanders Show, The Critic and Freaks and Geeks. Carell's career has thus far consisted predominately of imitating television personalities, beginning as a correspondent for The Daily Show, followed by local newsmen in Bruce Almighty and Anchorman, the ghost of Paul Lynde in Bewitched, and soon the role of Maxwell Smart in a movie version of Get Smart. Lately, he has forayed into interoffice dysfunction in the American TV version of The Office.

In 40-Year-Old Virgin, one employee threatens to go postal unless the manager switches out the Michael McDonald concert video continuously playing on a bank of televisions. Two Arab coworkers, blind to their own abrasive personalities, loudly cite racism and al-Qaida as the reasons they aren't invited to office get-togethers. During a break, two guys smash florescent light bulbs to relieve the monotony.

Maybe it's this same ennui that prompts Andy's workmates to co-opt ending his virginity as their life mission. Or perhaps their subconscious motive is really to mask their particular interpersonal ineptitude. David (Paul Rudd), initially the picture of stability, reveals himself to be emotionally crippled by his obsession with an ex-girlfriend. Jay (Romany Malco) uses bravado and infidelity as coping mechanisms for his insecurity concerning his wife's pregnancy and his impending fatherhood. And Cal's (Seth Rogan) ideal of how to pick up chicks is "David Caruso in Jade," a persona Andy interprets by carrying on an entire conversation speaking only in questions.

Meanwhile, the expected object of ridicule transforms into an antihero (The Greatest American Hero theme song is featured during a mid-movie montage). The 40-Year-Old Virgin isn't some Farrelly Brothers farce where the protagonist spends the entire movie feebly trying to score until he unwittingly uncovers some half-baked embezzlement scheme, earning himself a measure of respect and a willing lass. Professionally, Andy rises to the top of the Smart Tech sales division. Moreover, his virginity is cast more as a choice than a curse--no fewer than five women futilely throw themselves at him. Rather than some smoldering caldron of sexual repression, Andy expresses more interest in dubs of Everybody Loves Raymond than an entire box of porn tapes.

Andy's soul mate comes in the form of his sexual antithesis--Trish (Catherine Keener), a 40-something divorcee with three children and one grandchild who owns a business that sells other people's stuff on eBay. As another example of the film's overarching commentary on society's growing detachment (a scene involving a speed-dating session serves the same purpose), Andy wonders aloud why she has a physical store, particularly when a kid walks in and is told he can't purchase a pair of boots except via the Internet.

Trish yearns for an emotional and spiritual kinship free of the encumbrances and expectations of one grounded primarily on physical chemistry. Enter tailor-made Andy, who charms Trish and wins over her two youngest kids, including teenage daughter Marla (Kat Dennings), a self-hating virgin whose hormonal urges are checked thanks to Andy's support.

In this respect, The 40-Year-Old Virgin is not just an improbable date film and an exposition on societal fragmentation. More startling, it's an oblique pro-abstinence tome set amongst the R-rated rote of vomit, urine, chest hair and masturbation gags needed to satisfy the audience's craving for guilty pleasures (I admit I laughed out loud). As Andy chases after his beloved near film's end, feverously pedaling his bicycle while clad in a plaid button-down and safety helmet, he strikes the pose of a provincial mad prophet, an oasis of innocence in a sex-obsessed culture. As the film closes with a cheeky rendition of "The Age of Aquarius" from the musical Hair, one can posit that the enlightenment and harmony of that mystical age encapsulates not simply Andy's own maturation, but also his aspiration for the rest of us.

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