I've been racking my brain for a couple days trying to come up with a better title for Judd Apatow's The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Because while that neatly sums up our protagonist's situation, it bespeaks of crass sex comedy and fails to convey the sweet, sentimental heart beating beneath the cheap boyish hijinks.
It's not that the R-rated Virgin doesn't feature plenty of yuks at the expense of exposed body parts, and repeated discussions of various sex acts (how is it that in less than a week I've seen two films that reference a "rusty trombone"?). But as might be expected from writer-director Apatow -- who created a cult TV show about sad, sweet high schoolers, Freaks and Geeks -- the film's best moments spring from wry observational humor and from a savvy understanding of courtship's awkward dance.
Our titular hero, Andy, is a quietly funny nerd who works in the stockroom at an electronics superstore. He spends his nights watching Survivor with elderly neighbors, playing video games and tending to his massive collection of mint-in-box action figures. One night he joins his co-workers for a poker game, and when the talk turns to reminiscences of freaky sex partners, Andy fumbles badly, describing a woman's breasts as feeling like bags of sand. His secret out, his sex-obsessed colleagues make it their mission to "fix" Andy's situation, precipitating an entertaining series of solutions.
And it's here that the film takes the high road, while simultaneously enjoying the guffaws down on the low route. Spurred by their encouragement, but wisely rejecting their stupidest suggestions (like hooking up with falling-down-drunk chicks), Andy sets his sights on Trish (Catherine Keener), a woman of comparable age who runs the We Sell Your Stuff on eBay store across the street. (Far be it from me to suggest that a grown man with an action-figure collection needs to meet a woman who sells on eBay.) Meanwhile Andy's advisers and experts are revealed to be romantic disasters themselves: All pine for the kindred-spirit, mature relationship that only Andy is willing to wait for without cheapening himself in the pursuit.
Among the story's strengths is that it never forces Andy to change, to become somebody else, in order to propel the narrative forward: Rather Andy is inspired to simply be a better version of himself, making his small successes -- upgrading his bicycle, discovering a gift for sales, getting a date -- so winning. Nor does Apatow ever make Andy a figure of cruel fun. And how rare is it in a raucous sex comedy to be rooting for the guy who refuses to compromise his respect for women (take that, Wedding Crashers).
Andy is portrayed winningly by Daily Show vet Steve Carell, the scene-stealer in several recent comedies (Bewitched, Anchorman) and the painfully clueless boss on the American version of The Office. Carell successfully tackles a tricky multi-dimensional role: He plays straight man to his co-stars' showier performances, an earnest suitor in a romantic comedy and a full-range funnyman (from slapstick pratfall to deadpan reactions). And speaking of physical comedy, Carell takes a tough one for the team, submitting to an actual chest-hair wax (that blood is real, as is obviously the doubled-over laughter of his co-stars). Keener, with her offbeat looks and warm quirkiness, has long specialized in women like Trish, both weather-beaten and desirable, and she makes a perfect yin for Andy's yang.
The end, a rousing bit of nonsense extraneous to the storyline, has been done before in other silly comedies, but it still felt uplifting, so to speak. I'm still shy the perfect alternative film title, though I'm leaning toward the equally straightforward Nice Guy Wins Girl: Trust Me, You'll Laugh.