Director: Judd Apatow
Producers: Judd Apatow, Shauna Robertson, Clayton Townsend (Universal)
Writers: Judd Apatow, Steve Carell (screenplay)
Photography: Jack N. Green
Music: Lyle Workman
Cast: Steve Carell, Catherine Keener, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Romany Malco, Elizabeth Banks, Leslie Mann, Jane Lynch, Gerry Bednob, Shelley Malil, Kat Dennings, Jordy Masterson, Chelsea Smith, Jonah Hill, Eric Vittina Philips, Marika Dominczyk, Mindy Kaling, Nancy Carell, David Koechner
In reviewing Knocked Up (2007), the second film from writer/director Judd Apatow, a Philly critic made a bold statement: “2007, the year Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen saved movie comedy.” The jist of the claim was true, as Apatow and Rogen had scored a huge hit, both with the critics (90% rottentomatoes) and the masses (grossing $148.7 million). But I prefer to think the genre was saved two years earlier, in the first film Apatow directed, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, arriving at a crucial time, the summer of 2005.
The reigning kings of comedy, the so-called Frat Pack, had just released their last great effort, Wedding Crashers (2005), a comedy that swept the country. Exactly a month later, they would pass the torch to their heir apparents, the Apatow-Rogen crowd, using common links forged back on Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2003) — producer Apatow, bit actor Rogen and supporting actor Steve Carell.
“[Carell] would kill everyday and I thought, this guy should have his own movie,” Apatow said. “And I said to him one day, ‘Do you have any ideas for movies because we should try to think of something,’ and about a week later, he walked up to me and said, ‘I wrote this sketch that we never really did on Second City where I played a 40-year-old virgin,’ and oddly I said, ‘Well I understand that guy!'” (A)
And so the two went to writing the screenplay for The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Apatow’s directorial debut and Carell’s first as a leading man. It wound up getting the best reviews of any comedy of 2005, even better than Wedding Crashers. I remember back to that summer, hearing many of my college buddies championing Wedding Crashers as the funniest movie they’d seen in a long time. I agreed whole heartedly — until Virgin hit theaters, and Crashers’ reign as champion was over, as was the Frat Pack’s. A new day had dawned, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin had saved the movie comedy.
It all centers around its title character, Andy Stitzer (Carell), a 40-year-old stock room employee at an electronics store called SmartTech, where Michael McDonald concerts loop constantly. Andy is a bike rider, an avid action figure collector and all around nice guy; he just also happens to be a virgin. He’s embarrassed about it, but doesn’t know what to do about it. Enter his SmartTech friends, Cal (Rogen), a pothead who’s ugly by traditional standards but knows how to talk to women, Jay (Romany Malco), a well-groomed yet insecure adulterer who knows how to use his peripherals, and David (Paul Rudd), still held up on some ex named Amy, who “sucked the life force out of him.” Together, they make it their mission to get Andy laid. Unfortunately, they give him mistaken advice as they take him out to clubs to meet women. The pressure is too much for Andy, and he’s about to give up, when a bright light walks into the electronics store, Trish (Catherine Keener), a sweet divorced mother who also happens to be “a hot grandma” and owns a “We Sell Your Stuff on eBay” store across the street.
In Andy, Trish sees a chance at a sweet man, one she can settle down with, as opposed to her ex-husband who no doubt treated her horribly. She brings him home, where he is accepted by Trish’s youngest daughter, Julia (Chelsea Smith), but immediately rejected as a nerd by her 16-year-old middle child, Marla (Kat Dennings). Andy makes it his own personal goal to win over Marla, and Trish helps him grow up a little by selling his action figure collection. All the whille, Andy fears Trish is trying to change who he really is, and most of all, worries she’ll like him less if she finds out he’s a virgin. Thus, he keeps it a secret and tries to avoid sex at all costs, making a plan that they’ll get to know eachother for 20 dates first. When the day finally arrives, Andy still isn’t ready, causing Trish to think there’s something wrong with her, and she leaves in a huff. It’s then up to Andy to chase her down and reveal the embarrassing truth that, as he comes to find out, is not so embarrassing at all.
The cast, from top to bottom, has defined a generation. Where else to start except for Rogen, who’s as hot on the comedy scene as any actor out there. He had first worked with Apatow on the Emmy-winning Freaks and Geeks (1999), canceled after two seasons but an instant cult classic. He then played a lowly “Eager Camerman” on Anchorman, but still, to the vast majority of audiences, he was unknown. Virgin would be his big break, the film where he wore a back support vest and got all the film’s best one-liners. I remember sitting and watching Virgin in theaters, seeing Rogen for the first time and saying to myself, “This guy’s gonna be big.” Then came Knocked Up, Superbad, Pineapple Express, Zack and Miri Make a Porno and This is the End.
Rogen’s Zack and Miri co-star Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games) was born here too, as the crazy girl in the hot tub, doing wonders with a portable showerhead. So was Paul Rudd, previously known only as Phoebe’s boyfriend in Friends, who used Virgin as a stepping stone to Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Role Models and I Love You, Man, where he’s now a leading man. Jonah Hill went from trying to buy a pair of tacky shoes to superstardom in Knocked Up, Superbad, 21 Jump Street and an Oscar nomination for Moneyball. Kat Dennings went from the virginal daughter to playing Norah in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and the chatty sidekick in Thor. Romany Malco found his way onto TV’s Weeds (2005), Mindy Kaling went on to play Kelly on The Office (2005), Gerry Bednob stuck around for Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007) and Anchorman‘s David Koechner used his pathetic dad at a birth control class as a segway to Talladega Nights (2006), Balls of Fury (2007) and Semi-Pro (2008).
Virgin also boasts a collection of more experienced actresses, first and foremost Keener, who had already earned an Oscar nomination for Being John Malkovich (1999) and after Virgin, would earn another for Capote (2005). Her performance is the rock that maintains the pathos of the film, the calming (yet still flawed and modern) force against the insanity of Andy’s SmartTech friends. Elsewhere, Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann, famous as the Hooters girl in Big Daddy (1999), shows up as the drunk driver who craves f’n French toast and almost kills Andy, before making a mess on him. And Jane Lynch, who had worked with Carrell on Second City and played in such films as The Fugitve (1993), used Virgin as a career jumpstart, leading to TV’s Glee (2009).
I feel like I’m missing somebody…oh yes, the star of the film. What can you say about Steve Carell, except that he is the 21st century’s first king of comedy. His superstardom could be seen from a mile away if you were looking in the right places. Like Stephen Colbert, he started out filing reports for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show (1996). He stole the show as a TV anchorman made to talk jibberish by Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty (2003). That transitioned perfectly to the movie Anchorman (2004), where he harmonized to “Afternoon Delight” and played quite the hilarious idiot. But it was Virgin where he truly blew up, providing his first role as a leading man, a rank he would not relinquish through Evan Almighty (2007), Dan in Real Life (2007), Get Smart (2008), Crazy, Stupid Love (2011), The Way, Way Back (2013) and, most famously, as Michael Scott, the boss of TV’s The Office (2005).
Fans of such films and shows must get on their knees and thank The 40-Year-Old Virgin, as it was the first conceived solely as a vehicle for Carell. Believe you and me, he ran with it. His role as Andy Stitzer is one of the greatest lovable losers in the history of film, his embarrassment and unease feeling entirely authentic. As he proved the following year in Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Carell is capable of real pathos. He’s not just a funnyman — though he’s that in spades. It’s precisely the same dorkiness that makes Andy lovable, that also makes him hilarious. It’s a style of comedy Carell pioneered, in a way, and I laugh everytime I see his dorky delivery of a line like, “She was a ho…for sho,” or his straight face on a comment like, “It’s a Mentos. They’re the freshmaker.”
Co-written by Apatow and Carell, with plenty of improv, the film does overreach at times (like Jay’s fight with a testy customer), but overall it features an impressive number of sidesplitting moments bound to become classics. Be forewarned, they are raunchy, but try to loosen up and laugh along the way, knowing that when things get their most graphic, Andy will be there to say, “This is graphic,” and when it’s all said and done, there will be real warmth revealed.
Who can forget Andy waking up with such a hard-on that he pees in his own face; the flashbacks of his failed sex experiences (a concept copied in The Hangover); David giving his collection of porn to a reluctant Andy (“Space Nuts” influencing Zack and Miri); Andy screaming “Kelly Clarkson!” as his chest hair is waxed in the shape of a smiley face (Carell insisted they do it for real); Andy going on a death ride with a drunk driving woman who pukes on him and says, “I’ll still have sex with you if you want”; Andy’s own drunken night, courting a horny young girl by saying he’ll park his bike in her trunk; and the awkward birth control class where he innocently asks, “Is it true that if you don’t use it, you lose it?” drawing the response, “Is that a serious question?”
Unfortunately, the film was released after the AFI’s 100 Laughs, so who knows if it would’ve made the list (probably not, considering the AFI’s bias against modern comedies). But, on BRAVO’s Funniest Films, a list biased in the opposite direction, Virgin ranked a powerful #30, ahead of such classics as The Big Lebowski (1998), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Austin Powers (1997). Still, while the film is funny — laugh out loud funny — that’s not what makes it great. What separates it is the very same thing the The New York Times said about Knocked Up, that it “attaches dirty humor to a basically upright premise.” That’s how you win the heart of viewers.
It’s the “upright premise” that serves as the backbone to all the jokes. Take the horrible macho advice Jay gives Andy at the club: “You’re about to run down some drunk chicks, alright? Don’t confuse that with tipsy, we’re talkin’ about drunk. I want vomit in the hair, bruised up knees, a broken heel is a plus.” Okay, it’s funny, ha ha, we have our laugh, but what remains is the fact that Andy doesn’t buy it. It’s precisely the opposite of what Andy envisions about love, and when he rebels against this in his relationship with Trish, we as audiences are satisfied. This allows for a fabulous low point in the film, an “all is lost” moment, where Andy gets scared, gets drunk and goes back to Jay’s advice, that you need to have sex with lots of women before you have a serious relationship. But by this point, Jay and the other guys have conceded that Andy was right along. This allows for Andy’s ultimate growth, his conquering of the low point and ultimate triumph in the end as he admits his virginal secret, and Trish accepts it.
Still, the biggest “upright” moment of pathos may come between Andy and Trish’s daughter, Marla. At the birth control class, the instructor asks who among them is a virgin, and Marla raises her hand. Immediately, her face shows embarrassment, as no one else is raising their hands. When some of them start laughing at her, Andy steps up as a hero and raises his hand, too. It’s like Spartacus in a way, Carell becoming the Kirk Douglas of comedy. He’s saying to her, it’s okay to be a virgin in a society of sex. At the same time, it also mines laugh at the expense of Andy’s virginity. It at once mocks abstinence and embraces it, which, let’s face it, is the crux of our political debate. In the end, when the mocking and the embracing is done, what remains is one simple message: whether you are or aren’t a virgin, who are you to judge the other? And above all, the film’s real strength is that it doesn’t make you want to go instantly have sex; it leaves you wanting to go seek a strong bond with a woman the way Andy does.
Somewhere between its birth control classes and condom scenes, we make look back on The 40-Year-Old Virgin as a tipping point in our cultural discourse on sex. I know that sounds weird to say about a popular comedy flick, but sometimes it takes mass entertainment to reach the most people, and this one laid the groundwork for Carell’s “that’s what she said” trademark in TV’s The Office. Sex is the subject from the very start, when Andy makes a date with an elderly couple to watch Survivor, and the old man turns to his wife and says, “That guy needs to get laid.” Later, David tells Andy that “sex should be the last thing on your mind,” at which point he walks down the sidewalk surrounded by beautiful women, humping dogs, risqué magazine covers and bus ads for a sex product called “Eruption.” It’s both hilarious and a great commentary on just how much we are surrounded by sex in our modern society.
The most fascinating scene in this regard is where Trish argues with Marla about her abstaining from sex. Marla says, “I can’t believe it! You’re allowed to have sex and I’m not!” Trish responds, “I want you to keep it in your pants until college! I don’t want you to make the same mistakes as me!” The scene shows the eternal conflict between mother and daughter, and the balance parents must play in making up for their own mistakes while trying to not look hypocritical.
It’s also telling that Trish says, “I’m going to take you back to church!” as if she has moved away from her faith and now, in this moment of crisis, is turning back to it for answers. Connect this with the wedding scene in the end, where a priest says, “You may now kiss the bride. And for God’s sake, consummate the thing!” It makes me wonder if the church will forever be at odds with the sexual revolution, if the two teachings are just too diametrically opposed, or if the church can ever find compromise, as it already has with divorce, slavery, planetary orbit, the sun and other once controversial issues.
Something in the film’s finale shows the beauty of such potential reconciliation, as Andy, finally having lost his virginity to his new wife Trish, breaks into a rendition of “The Age of Aquarius,” followed by “Let the Sun Shine.” It’s a finale of ecstasy, a celebration of perfect harmony, the entire cast dancing with streamers and the priest doing cartwheels of joy. Dare I say it’s the small, subtle way a mainstream comedy can spark a seachange in American culture?
Such suggestions of social importance are likely beyond the wildest dreams of Apatow, who started as just a young kid who wanted to make people laugh. He grew up watching TV from the minute he got home from school through The Tonight Show, and even transcribed his favorite SNL skits. He got his first taste of comedy-as-profession when his mother worked as a seater at a stand-up comedy club. In his teens he booked big names on his high school radio show, names like Seinfeld, Reiser and Candy, and started his own stand-up career at 17. After dropping out of USC, he roomed with Adam Sandler in Hollywood, and then go this big braek when he met Ben Stiller and together pitched The Ben Stiller Show to HBO, who sold it to FOX. (A) It would be 13 more years before he made his directorial debut on Virgin, where he hired experienced D.P. Jack Green (Unforgiven).
From a director’s standpoint, like most comedies, Virgin does not quite achieve greatness, simply because its director shows little interest in understanding the cinematic possibilities of the medium. There are a few nice things, like the slow-motion pull-in on Andy as his buddies laugh at his virgin news; the single-take change from night to day with Andy lying awake worrying they’ll make fun of him; Andy’s masturbatory fantasy of a porn star talking dirty to him but only being able to speak in Andy’s words and voice; and the symbolism of Andy literally breaking through the barrier of the “Eruption” sex advertisement at the moment he reveals his virginity to Trish.
Still, Apatow will never be considered a “strong” director in the film school sense, and he’s the first to admit it. “I actually don’t understand anything about lenses. And if you explain it to me, I will forget it in five minutes,” Apatow said. “What I’m trying to do with the cinematographer is make it feel real. I don’t want the audience to think that Judd has some style and that you can tell it’s one of my movies. I’m actually trying to make it look like movies that I liked, like Coming Home or The Last Detail, where it feels almost like a documentary.” (A)
Apatow subscribes to the school of thought that a director should not call attention to himself, that he should step back and make his job so transparent that audiences barely notice. For this, he is certainly no auteur, visually speaking, but one could argue for his merits as a narrative auteur. From film to film, the types of stories he tells, and the way he tells them, do leave you the impression that, “Yes, that was a Judd Apatow movie.” In this way, he is similar to Howard Hawks, only less acclaimed, far less versatile across genres and far too early in his career to summize.
So for now, we have a body of work that spans less than 20 years, all comedy, but some of the staples of an era: the Emmy-winning The Ben Stiller Show (writer, 1992), the Emmy-winning The Larry Sanders Show (writer, 1993), Heavy Weights (writer, 1995), The Cable Guy (producer, 1996), the Emmy-winning Freaks and Geeks (writer, 1999), Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (producer, 2004), The 40-Year-Old Virgin (writer/director/producer, 2005), Fun with Dick and Jane (writer, 2005), Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (producer, 2007), Knocked Up (writer/director/producer, 2007), Superbad (producer, 2007), Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (writer/producer, 2007), Forgetting Sarah Marshall (producer, 2008), Step Brothers (producer, 2008), You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (writer, 2008), Pineapple Express (writer/producer, 2008), Year One (producer, 2009) and Funny People (writer/director/producer, 2009), among others.
For all this, Apatow was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2009. When it comes to modern mainstream comedy, Judd Apatow is where it’s at. It would be easy to assign him a catchy two-part title like so many of the lowbrow comedies he produces — perhaps Funny Moneybags: The Ballad of Judd Apatow — but that would overlook the fact that Apatow has the potential to rise above that. Least we forget that he has only directed three of these, Virgin, Knocked Up and Funny People, all three hilarious, and all three with just as much seriousness. The work he actually chooses to direct stands head and shoulders above the standard fare he produces, because it has that much more heart. Let’s hope he maintains that distinction.
CITE A: Inside the Actor’s Studio: Judd Apatow