In our oversexed culture, people who choose to go without sex are inevitably regarded as a little freakish. Three years ago, Josh Hartnett starred in 40 Days and 40 Nights, a comedy about a hot young stud who shocks his friends by giving up sex, or at least the fullest expression of it, for Lent; but instead of a celebration of chastity, his newfound interest in abstinence becomes just another way to find newer, more exotic forms of physical pleasure. If mainstream culture finds it impossible to go without sex for a little more than a month, then just imagine what it would make of a man who has somehow made it to his 40th year—a full generation, biblically speaking—without ever touching a naked woman.
There are lots of stereotypes about grown-up virgins, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin—about a man whose co-workers conspire to hook him up, so to speak, after they discover he has never done the deed—plays on every single one of them. But in its own peculiar way, the film stands these stereotypes on their head, so much so that, by the end, our protagonist seems like the sanest character of the bunch. This is as much a function of the film's casting as anything else. Andy Stitzer, the virgin in question, is played by Steve Carell, a brilliant scene-stealer who may be best known for the dweeby broadcasters he played in Bruce Almighty and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Carell's character here is still something of a dork, but as the leading man, Carell has an opportunity to flesh him out and to make him more human. What's more, almost all the other characters have peculiar traits of their own, and since we identify with Andy, this makes him, in some sense, the straight man.
At first, The 40-Year-Old Virgin may seem like a film without any straight men whatsoever. When we first meet Andy, he is a pastiche of jokes just waiting to be told, and the film seems to regard his virginity as just one of many indicators that he has not yet grown up. He is awfully shy; he collects comic-book figurines and Six Million Dollar Man dolls (remember those?); he plays video games in a specially equipped chair rigged with joysticks and speakers; and he rides a bicycle (with rear-view mirrors!) instead of driving a car. I happened to see the film with a few bicycling enthusiasts, and they were rather miffed to see their personal lifestyle choice portrayed as a sign of Andy's social ineptitude. As one who was a virgin myself until recently, I wanted to say, "Now you know how I feel."
Full disclosure: I got married six months ago at the age of 34—not quite as old as Andy, but close enough—and over the years I have written a few articles on media portrayals of virginity and, in the process, "outed" myself as an adult virgin. I would like to be able to express some indignation and say this film gets us (ex-)virgins wrong and it doesn't match my experience, etc., except, well, I do have boxes filled with comic books, and I used to collect some toys, too. (Fortunately, my wife is also a comics buff.) And, while this film's raunchy humor goes way over the top, some moments do have the ring of truth.
Andy's co-workers discover that he's a virgin when they invite him one day to join them for one of their poker nights. There, the conversation turns to some very frank discussion about sex, and Andy's efforts to sound experienced are so painfully bad, it doesn't take his colleagues long at all to figure out his true status. And once the cat's out of the bag, they try everything they can think of to help him join their ranks—taking him to night clubs, coaching him on pick-up lines, setting him up with prostitutes, speed-dating, and so on; his boss (A Mighty Wind's Jane Lynch) even propositions him. Naturally, all of these attempts fail, and what becomes increasingly clear is that Andy's colleagues—including David (Paul Rudd), who has never gotten over the woman who dumped him years ago; Jay (Romany Malco), who cheats on his girlfriend; and Cal (Seth Rogen), who's a little too interested in depravity to find anything truly sexy—are in some ways the truly pathetic people.
At two full hours, The 40-Year-Old Virgin is unusually long for a comedy, and many scenes could have been trimmed or cut altogether. A scene in which Andy has his chest waxed, prompting him to swear profusely, runs longer than it needs to, as though the filmmakers felt it would be disrespectful to let even one second of Carell's pain end up on the cutting room floor. Elsewhere, a confrontation between Jay and one of his customers comes out of nowhere, seems to be building up to something, and is then suddenly over. Judd Apatow, directing his first feature after years writing and producing shows like Freaks and Geeks, treats the film less like a movie and more like a long, uneven string of sketches—not unlike Anchorman, which he also produced, and which featured many of the same actors.
We are about an hour into the film before its central relationship—between Andy and Trish (Catherine Keener), a woman with three children who runs a business selling things on eBay—finally comes together. Andy and Trish almost have sex on their first date, but they are interrupted by one of her daughters, a teenager who (rightly) protests that it is hypocritical of her mother to take boyfriends home while forbidding her offspring to have sex. After this experience, Trish suggests taking it slow, and Andy agrees that they should get to know each other first; and so they agree to wait, oh, maybe 10 dates—no, maybe 15—oh heck, why not 20—before they have sex. Andy's friends worry that this is a sign of weakness, and Trish herself begins to wonder why Andy is so eager to put off sleeping with her.
But there are moments when the film almost strikes a blow for virgin pride, such as a scene in which Andy accompanies Trish's daughter to a family-planning clinic. And the film concludes on a very interesting note, indeed. (Spoiler alert: jump to the next paragraph if you don't want to know how the film ends.) Of course, we expect Andy to "lose it" by the end of the movie; but the striking thing is that he and Trish actually get married first—and the scene brought back happy, and funny, memories of my own wedding night. Instead of mocking my own personal choice to wait until marriage, as it were, it felt like the film was affirming it.
There is an awful lot of foul language and raunchy humor in this film, and it needs tighter editing, so I can't say I recommend it. But is intriguing to see how, even in its most off-color moments, Hollywood turns to traditional virtues for its happy endings.Discussion starters
- The only time anyone mentions religion in this film is when Trish's daughter says she wants birth control, and Trish, in reply, threatens to send her daughter to church. What do you make of that? Would that make any difference? Statistics say churchgoers aren't much different from the rest of the world in terms of their sexual practices; what do we make of that? What about the minister at the end of the film—what sort of attitude do you think he's expressing?
- Do you wish someone had asked Andy if his virginity was due to religious reasons? Do you think people have to be "religious" to choose to wait for marriage? Are there other reasons for waiting until marriage? How many of these reasons does the film provide? (For example, in one scene, Cal says it's great that Andy doesn't have STDs.)
- Are there any bad reasons to abstain from sex? Consider the scene in which David says celibacy is the way to go, because that way no woman can suck the life out of a man. What do you think of that advice? Should spouses ever turn each other down (see 1 Corinthians 7:1-7)? Given the standards of the world, is Trish right to complain when Andy won't have sex with her? Would it depend on his reasons?
- Do you think Andy's friends offer reliable object lessons in the problems people face when they become sexually active outside of marriage? Or do married people face the same problems?
- Cal says Andy's first time will be bad, so he shouldn't spend it with someone he loves, but with a complete stranger instead. How do you react to that advice?
- Do you think people make a big deal of virginity, or the losing of it? Which is more important, virginity or chastity? Is it possible to be chaste even if you are not a virgin? If so, how? Is it possible to be a virgin and not chaste? (For example, a counselor in the film describes several forms of "outercourse"—are these practices compatible with chastity?)
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The 40-Year-Old Virgin is rated R for pervasive sexual content, language and some drug use. That "pervasive sexual content" includes scenes throughout the film that are especially degrading to women, who are often treated as mere sex objects. The movie also may have more f-words than any other movie produced outside the crime genre, and it has some nudity, too—including a woman whose breast pops out of her dress, a man who videotapes his own rear end, and a scene in which Andy's co-workers lock him in a room full of video screens showing a porn movie. Some of the jokes involve vomit and urination, and there is an obligatory scene of two dogs in heat at the park.
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from Film Forum, 08/25/05
Judd Apatow's comedy The 40-Year-Old Virgin is about … well … just that. Steve Carrell proved himself as Hollywood's funniest secret weapon while playing a small part as a weatherman in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Now he has his first lead role in film as a socially inept geek (he collects action figures and works at a tech shop) who tries to cover up his virginity by boasting about sexual shenanigans until someone calls his bluff. When his peers begin to apply the proverbial peer pressure, coaching him toward fornication, he suddenly finds himself in love with a wonderful woman (the always impressive Catherine Keener) and decides to put off "the big event" a little longer.
Thus, in spite of the film's incessant locker-room humor and profanity, the film's plot ultimately shines a surprising, complimentary light on abstinence and restraint. But that's not enough to save it from the wrath of Christian film critics, who, needless to say, aren't recommending it.
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) laments, "We've seen it before. The buddies of a painfully shy, awkward guy—who has never had a girlfriend—help him find true love. But this latest incarnation … is relentlessly vulgar and frequently offensive, even beyond the false premise that there's something intrinsically wrong with an unmarried man being sexually inexperienced."
Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) says the film is "overloaded to the breaking point with vile material—both visual and verbal. Period. Do I now live in a world in which an oxymoron such as 'innocently raunchy' can actually exist? Sure, Andy is a sensitive nice-guy who finds occasional contentment in his celibacy in a culture that typically defines happiness by the number of sexual conquests one has. That's great. But are we to studiously ignore the onslaught of over-the-top foul content that surrounds him?"
Meanwhile, mainstream critics are celebrating the arrival of comedy's hottest new leading man.