It’s easy to attribute “The 40-Year-Old Virgin’s” success to it being “realistic” and having some sort of innate “truth” aside from other rom-coms. That there is some profound message about toxic masculinity and adult relationships lurking beneath Steve Carrell’s hairy bosom that isn’t quite emulated in other comedies. That might be true, but “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” is a landmark because it gives its characters and gags room to breathe, moving not a step out of rhythm of the pace of real life.
Carrell plays “Andy,” a 40-year-old stock clerk at a mid-tier electronics store. He’s savagely lonely, stuck in a man-cave with a slew of action figurines guarding his entrance. He’s also never done the deed with a woman, a fact that Andy isn’t that ashamed or bothered by, until he becomes butt of the joke for the younger miscreants who work at his store. When his virginity slips out, David (Paul Rudd), Jay (Romany Malco), and Cal (Seth Rogen) declare themselves as devotees to Andy’s virginity voyage, knights serving an awkward king at a mushroom-head table.
Throughout their quest, Andy bumps into Trish (Catherine Keener), an attractive woman around his age who is enticed by Andy’s friendliness and warm charm. Andy’s awkward conversations are mistaken for smooth-talking by Beth (Elizabeth Banks oh now I get it why her character is named Beth!). The women are at opposite ends of the romantic and maturity spectrum, with Trish more concerned with showering grime off her vegetables for dinner that night, and Beth more interested in using her showerhead for below-the-sink activities.
It’s a premise that could easily devolve into a B-level Ben Stiller or Vince Vaughan flick, but one that is fixed in the upper echelon of comedic lore simply because it takes the time to paint the mundane normalcy of its characters day-to-day lives. Instead of squeezing in a half-assed joke every minute or two, Judd Apatow gives us slow buildups with our dialogue feeling fresh and jokes earned. Filming nearly 2/3 of the movie at an electronic store seems like a recipe for failure, but the fact that they explore every crevice and comedic corner of the retail floor allows for variety even in a situated setting.
The fact that Apatow is able to pull this off, making an unbuckled belt of a movie where our guts can reign free, is nothing short of extraordinary. This came out in 2005 during the height of Will Ferrell-dom and the return of “Family Guy,” where comedies found their niche in a high quantity of gross out gags. “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” seems antithetical and almost revolutionary to that standpoint, proving that the tortoise often picks more laughs up along the way than the hare didn’t see when it was sprinting towards the credits.