The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) went some way in launching or propelling the careers of the likes of Steve Carell and Seth Rogen (Jonah Hill would probably have to wait until Superbad), and confirmed Judd Apatow’s credence as a director. It shows, what we now know, as the usual Apatow comedy traits. Rather than sustained laughs and continual, quipping smart dialogue, it instead revolves around several set pieces of physical, body-centred hilarity, not necessarily gross-out, through sexual awkwardness or near death.
You can see the familiar patterns. The waxing scene in 40YOV (absolutely superb), Andy’s (Carell) awkward stripping when he takes Beth (Elizabeth Banks) home, and him then being catapulted through the advertising from his bike (‘Eruption’, a joke that Carell’s character, is all too aware of). Here’s Trainwreck (2015): Steven’s repressed homosexuality (played by John Cena – his hulking body the paradox of his crushing insecurity), Amy’s (Schumer) awkward sex with her co-worker that, like Carell’s character, she doesn’t actually want; and then her trying to impress Aaron (Bill Hader) at a basketball game in which she falls flat on her face. One can see the lineage, but comedy is about formula, funny formulas at least.
Carell plays something of a cliché; the nerd, the comic-book lover, the guy who won’t take his action figures out of their box in case they lose their value. Perhaps there is something else in that sense of value, because there seems to be an element of preservation in Apatow’s films. The question is never answered as to why Andy is a virgin. Surely it is not enough to assume it’s because he’s a nerd? Clearly there is a meta-commentary available, that this was Apatow’s directing virginity (yuck), but what is the reason Andy has been keeping it in the box for twenty-or-so years? The greatest shock does not come from the fact that he is a virgin but rather that he seems to have never been exposed to sex. He has never watched pornorgraphy and refuses to when David (Paul Rudd) hands him a box of the stuff. Think how Trish (Catherine Keener), his future wife, is not annoyed that he has spent half of a night with Beth (Elizabeth Banks), but that he owns the porn David gave him. Sure, he feels awkward when he’s being goaded by his colleagues, but who wouldn’t? He seems to want something else, something antiquarian almost and something that I think makes the film most appealing; this is an attempt at an ‘adult’ comedy in the sense that it is talking about something often treated with juvenility in the cinema, and that like Carell’s character, doesn’t at first present itself as that. It’s a film that Andy seems to have been waiting for but found himself the star of. An subject that is about something young adult and invigorating but wants to be treated with maturity.
The poster of the film shows Carell surrounded by a halo-like glow. There is no sign that his character is religious but there is a feeling of holy abstinence. Andy is trying to step away from it, to not be immersed in this world of excessive sexual messages and media. Think of the joke when he is about to consummate his marriage (also note that there is lapse in the film, so that we don’t see the lead-up to the marriage where presumably he hasn’t done it either). He carries his wife into the hotel room. Hold on; there is a cleaner in there. How you can parse this moment as the cleaner stands there not finished ‘buffering’. Is he cleaning up the previous mess? Is Andy so naïve that he thinks nobody has been there before? But Andy is going to have to wait for him to stop buffering, like the internet video with the poor connection.
There is a real sweetness to the film though, an actual naivety that you don’t often get in cinema these days. Modern cinema is about complete exposure, not hiding things away: how much can we get away with, instead of how much can we keep under wraps. There is no sense of entitlement, nor backing away with immaturity (but after all, sex is funny), and it does confront finally that it won’t be able to avoid the subject forever. A real coming of age, twenty years late. And as if to emphasise its appeal to more innocent times, it ends in a musical number, yet what is the musical but an elaborate gesture of courting and pursuit like the birds that show their feathers to the mating partner? I’m reminded of Honest Trailers skit of Frozen with their “We’re gonna pork…” song. A film then that is perhaps about the means to celebration, to find something to sing and dance about, whatever it is, or isn’t.