Movies that shout out their premise in the title are generally something to be wary of, and The 40 Year-Old Virgin is the sort of concept you’d expect to see Rob Schneider stuck in after bottoming out in Deuce Bigalow: Man-Whore in Bangkok. The title dweeb, Andy Stitzer (Steve Carell), is a tenderly polite and gawky man-child who possesses the look, and demeanor, of a mama’s boy heading off to his first day of eighth grade. Andy, who works in the stockroom of an electronics megastore, owns a bike instead of a car, and he wears cheesy polo shirts, wide belts, and excessively tidy hair that add up to what must have been a teenage geek’s idea of with-it in 1982. That look is the definition of arrested, and so is Andy’s home, which is a plastic paradise of monster models, videogames, comic books, and action figures carefully sealed in their original packaging. He’s so obsessive he owns a doll of the Six Million Dollar Man’s boss. He has also never had sex, and so it’s hardly a wonder that he wakes up each morning with a giant bulge in his boxers. It’s the bulge he’s been carrying his whole life, the one he’s too scared to relieve.
In his previous movie roles, as the addled newscaster in Bruce Almighty, the brain-dead meteorologist in Anchorman, even channeling Paul Lynde’s snarky chiffon quiver in Bewitched, Steve Carell revealed a punchy genius for outsize personality tics. Here, though, he resists the temptation to turn Andy into some hideous eunuch-creep. An aging naïf who sublimates his libido by spending the afternoon making a mountain of egg salad, Andy may be a light caricature of a clueless, repressed loser (the word ho does not fall trippingly off his tongue), but Carell plays him in the funniest and most surprising way possible: as a credible human being. Looking like a dour Luke Wilson crossed with Griffin Dunne, Carell is handsome in a polytech math-major sort of way, with a hint of virility in his wrestler’s torso, yet his eyes are deep angelic pools of hope and sadness. One look at those innocent, trusting orbs and you glimpse the layer cake of Andy’s personality — the terror that has kept him from women, the yearning for order and logic on top of that, and then something more touching, an eagerness for life to stay simple and childlike, for love to be disentangled from fear.
Taking a break from his solitary habits, Andy joins a poker game with his colleagues at the Smart Tech outlet, who all brag about their bedroom exploits. Andy, reduced to rhapsodizing about breasts that feel like ”bags of sand,” is a man guessing at forbidden pleasure, but beneath the very funny joke we’re cued to the ripples of Andy’s shame, his need to fake his existence. The 40 Year-Old Virgin is buoyantly clever and amusing, a comedy of horny embarrassment that has the inspiration to present a middle-aged virgin’s dilemma as a projection of all our romantic anxieties. Directing his first film, Judd Apatow, who co-wrote the script with Carell, works with a frothy invention and, at times, a whiplash sexual bluntness. The movie is packed with fresh gags about porn, speed dating, and the gross-out perils of hooking up with drunk girls, yet the comedy never takes leave of humanity.
Uncovering Andy’s secret, his comrades gather forces, like a straight version of the Queer Eye team, to plug him — literally and figuratively — into the world of women. David (Paul Rudd), torn between sensitive-guy nostalgia for a fallen relationship and barely suppressed rage at the same ex-flame; Jay (Romany Malco), a handsome philanderer who screws himself over with his hip-hop attitude; and the homophobic would-be ladies’ man Cal (Seth Rogen) — this urgently funny trio constitutes a new-style frat-house burlesque of male paranoia and desire. Under their prodding, Andy pursues Trish (Catherine Keener), a single mom and eccentric businesswoman who is nearly as hesitant about jumping into bed as he is (though for different reasons), and he learns, with an ease that reveals just how mechanical it can be, the art of the pickup. There are a few over-the-top scenes, as when Andy gets his jungle of chest hair waxed, yet Carell, letting loose torrents of Tourettic obscenity, gives even the painful farce of this moment a hint of something extra.
Andy may be discombobulated by sex, but so is everyone else in the movie. When his boss (Jane Lynch) comes on to him like the dirtiest divorcée on a cruise ship, it’s not just a cheap gag. She too joins the circle of those ruled, and undermined, by the foolishness of desire. Andy’s wooing of Trish is a fairy-tale courtship, but Carell and Keener fuse their contrasting skittishness into a moonstruck neurotic connection, and when Andy does finally act to confront his problem, it’s a glorious release indeed: a nerd’s love-in.