Director: Judd Apatow
Cast: Steve Carrell, Catherine Keener, Paul Rudd, Romany Malco, Seth Rogen, Kat Dennings, Jane Lynch, Elizabeth Banks, Leslie Mann
Plot: Andy’s life is thrown into chaos when his work-mates realise he is a virgin. However, it also could provide the chance to finally get laid.
It is actually quite easy to tell the great comedies from the good ones. Some funny films get away with falsely being classified as the next best thing since National Lampoon, because on a first watch, they will have you rolling backwards laughing uncontrollably. However, on a second viewing, they don’t live up to the original watch. You understand the routine of the comedy, how each scene sets up the jokes and it comes across as strangely scripted and calculated, rather than a non-stop rollercoaster of laughs. Others, like the 40 Year Old Virgin, get better with age – potentially a strange metaphor for the movie itself. The jokes still work, the banter still feels fresh and I am happy to class The 40 Year Old Virgin as a comedy great.
It is perhaps the one time Judd Apatow’s comedy has actually worked as well as it should do. Apatow understands how to unlock America’s greatest comedians. His movies are always a ‘Best Of’ montage of the popular comics of the time. Here, we get a rising comedy star, Steve Carrell, always the supporting cast member in a comedy (Anchorman, Bruce Almighty), and finally given a lead that he can go wild with. Apatow has done the same with Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen and Amy Schumer since then. He has this way of figuring out every actor’s individual charms and allowing them to exploit it with reckless abandon onscreen. A lot of this is done with improvisation. There are a lot of scenes in 40 Year Old Virgin where Apatow is confident enough to stand back and let his comedians create the scene, rather than writing it himself. One scene sees Steve Carrell’s character have a chest wax. If I am not mistaken, Carrell actually allowed Apatow to film him have a real chest wax and everything that happens in that scene are Carrell, as well as the other actors standing and watching, creating the jokes with whatever feels natural. The same style goes for all of those little scenes of banter between various characters. The actors are allowed to come up with their own jokes, which is why the smaller gags feel so natural. This isn’t a writer coming up with the perfect dialogue for Paul Rudd. It is Paul Rudd coming up with the perfect line for Paul Rudd, because Apatow is intelligent enough to understand that, theoretically, Paul Rudd is the perfect candidate to do so. This is why scenes like the ‘Know How I Know You’re Gay’ lines come in. Sometimes the best jokes are the ones that just flow from the comedian’s mouths. You watch this movie and cannot help but wonder what the editing room floor looked like. How many gems missed the final cut? Yes, as history as proven, Apatow’s style doesn’t always work. His other movies have relied too heavily on the improvisation technique to the point where his follow up films have lacked a certain identity that The 40 Year Old Virgin has. In fact, there are even a few jokes in here that, while amusing, seem a little out of place, as though they are only in the movie, because the cast and crew have fallen in love with a particular pun that Seth Rogen came out with one day. It is where the flaw that will always hold the 40 Year Old Virgin back comes in: no comedy should be over two hours long. Mind you, it rarely feels it, definitely compared to Apatow’s other attempts.
Maybe the reason the improvisation feels so natural this time around is because Apatow almost balances it out with a proper story. This is 40 could be argued to be Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann allowed to run riot on camera for two hours. Funny People lacks a structured narrative. The 40 Year Old Virgin works as a story with a flowing narrative, quest and character arcs. It has themes and morals, the improvisation side of things just adds meat to the bones of the story. Also, Steve Carrell’s oddball Andy character is arguably the most precisely written figure Apatow has come out with. While the other characters in Apatow’s filmography are fictional, they rely on a lot of the actor’s personality leaking through. Carrell is nothing like the protagonist here, although a lot of the charm does come from Carrell’s own creativity and writing. Andy is a pretty close guess at how someone would wind up ressembling if they had managed to hit 40 without getting laid. He is wound up tight, unable to release his sexual frustration. He dives into any hobby that takes him mind off women (model-collecting, bike-riding), and has so many confidence issues his social life is non-existent. Each scene has a place in the story arc and while the scene often descends into improvisation, it never loses purpose. It works. It is also clever in its depiction of the best mates. They start off the film fairly unlikeable, unable to not take the piss out of their virgin co-worker, but eventually they soften. Without them, Andy would never take steps at coming out of his shell. Paul Rudd especially shows a softer side that is hard to dislike. Andy even gets around to improving their own lives. Romany Malco learns to respect women. Paul Rudd moves on from a bad break-up. Seth Rogen gets to bang a nymphomaniac.
Whether or not you agree with me that structure over improvisation is the key to a good comedy is somewhat pointless however. It is clear that 40 Year Old Virgin is one of the classics just from the quality of some of their set-pieces. Each scene comes across as good as the last. In fact, some of them could do with being a little longer. A speed-dating circuit works as a quick-fire blast of gags, each actor (including a cameo from Mindy Kaling), never over-staying their welcome but hitting the mark perfectly. Other highlights include Andy chatting up Elizabeth Banks in a book-store, some of the best dating advice put to excellent use. However, my personal highlight is easily from Apatow’s own wife, Leslie Mann. Andy’s first attempt at finding a woman to break his virginity with involves heading to the nearest club and asking the drunkest girl around to take him home. Leslie Mann is that woman. What follows is rib-achingly good.
Final Verdict: The 40 Year Old Virgin could, arguably, be the one time Apatow got the balance between structure and improv right, suggesting that this is the ideal Apatow vision.