From the first frame of his cinematic directorial debut, 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Judd Apatow has displayed a gift for creating characters so well-defined that we feel like we’ve known them forever. This gift for instant characterization, honed through close collaboration with his actors, many of whom he’s gone on to work with in film after film, renders the occasional shapelessness and artlessness of his work forgivable. The 40-Year-Old Virgin hooks audiences into its universe with character introductions that tell us everything we need to know about them without resorting to elaborate exposition or compromising the comedy. These introductions provide a solid grounding for the character-based improvisation to come, and everything they say and do follows organically, whether it’s in the script or improvised on set. The introductions are, in order of appearance:
Andy: As the titular lead, Andy (Steve Carrell) gets the longest, sweetest, and most involved introduction. We first see him lying on his bed just before his alarm strikes 7. A wider shot reveals that Andy’s lying a semi-fetal position, holding on to his pillow like it’s another person, a pose that highlights his loneliness and longing for connection, whether it’s a return to the womb or a lover to hold through the night.
But Andy’s pose isn’t as important as the artifacts that fill his room and define him as a manchild stuck in a state of perpetual pre-adolescence. A poster of a cool-ass space station looms over a bed that has never witnessed sex. A Mystery Science Theater 3000 poster hangs on his wall. When he walks to the bathroom with a morning erection in his boxers, he passes a collection of old dolls and action figures, each snugly inside a protective case, safe from wear, tear, and human enjoyment. A shelf in the bathroom houses even more action figures. Andy completes his daily exercise routine in front of a cardboard cutout of The Mummy and a campy photograph of Doug Hennings striking a magical pose in front of a tiger. Andy bathes, cleans his ears with a Q-tip, and prepares a tidy little omelette breakfast before tucking his khaki pants into his black socks and heading into work. But first, he banters playfully with an older couple that lives above him about their weekly date to watch Survivor together.
The couple’s affection for Andy is palpable, and understandable, but the man’s contention as Andy rides away—“That man needs to get laid!”—is just as understandable. This sequence doesn’t just introduce us to Andy, it establishes his entire universe: a world of toys, lunch boxes, and childhood kitsch that is comfy, safe, and asks nothing of him. But it’s also fundamentally lonely and unfulfilling. That’s why he needs people like:
Jay: Romany Malco’s consummate womanizer is introduced swooping in to help a buxom blonde woman after Andy, whom she initially approaches, croaks nervously that he’s not a salesman. Andy can barely communicate when confronted by a sexy woman, whereas Jay approaches the situation with barely concealed glee and a laser-like focus on seducing the woman, because that’s who he is as a man and a character: a slick opportunist with his eye perpetually on the next conquest, something that understandably causes problems in his relationship with his girlfriend. Jay slides past Andy as if he doesn’t exist, because he’s not about to let anything get in the way of what he wants, be it a sale, a phone number, or ideally both.
Cal: In his star-making performance, Seth Rogen is introduced apologizing for being late before sitting down and telling Andy about his weekend: He and his friends went down to Tijuana and saw a sex show where a woman copulated with a horse. The mortified look on Andy’s face when Cal matter-of-factly refers to a woman fucking a horse speaks volumes about their antithetical outlooks on both life and sex. Cal looks a little mortified himself as he explains to Andy how unexpectedly dispiriting the adventure proved.
The sequence is Seth Rogen in miniature. It begins with a ribald, Kevin Smith-style joke involving horse-fucking and Tijuana, but quickly becomes oddly human, even touching, as the character contemplates the humanity of the unfortunate sex worker reduced to fucking a horse for tourist dollars, and even the emotions of the horse itself. That’s the kind of character Rogen has played throughout his career: a guy who might go to a sex show involving a horse, and joke about the sex show involving the horse, but then will feel really bad and learn something about himself in the process. This leaves only:
David: Paul Rudd’s character is introduced bounding into the store, full of fake bonhomie as he announces to manager Paula (Jane Lynch) that unless she turns off the Michael McDonald video she’s been playing for the last two years, he will murder everyone in the store in frustration. We’ve briefly glimpsed both Paula and Michael McDonald before, when Andy entered the store, but this is the real introduction for all three.
Just as the attention devoted to the details of Andy’s apartment establishes his world as well as his character, this exchange helps define the universe of SmartTech, where employees like the perpetually dissatisfied David have no choice but to put up with the foibles and predilections of their bosses. It establishes the world of the electronics store as deeply hermetic, one where employees are way too invested in the lives and peccadilloes of their coworkers. The 40-Year-Old Virgin is a sex comedy and a coming-of-middle-age comedy, but it’s also a workplace comedy that devotes a lot of its running time to scenes inside SmartTech. The introduction of the store itself is almost as important as the introduction of the four main characters, their boss, and the store’s guardian angel, Mr. McDonald.
In his rant to Paula, David argues that he would rather listen to Fran Drescher in Beautician And The Beast for eight hours than ever hear the smooth sounds of Mike McDonald ever again. It’s telling that David, and by extension Rudd, does not reference Drescher’s hit series The Nanny, but rather her poorly received, mostly forgotten film vehicle. For some, obscure references like these are a dog whistle alerting them that the people who made the film are on their side, and share their geeky appreciation of pop culture’s recesses.
Before he made The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Apatow was mostly associated with the cultishly adored TV series Freaks And Geeks and Undeclared, but also with several other cult shows obsessed with pop culture in general and television in particular: The Ben Stiller Show (where he was a writer, executive producer, and sometime performer), The Critic (where he was a writer and consulting producer), and The Larry Sanders Show (where he was a writer, director, and consulting producer). And though he somewhat famously was denied a writing credit after suing for one, Apatow is widely credited with transforming The Cable Guy from a dopey Chris Farley buddy comedy to a dark satire about the corrosive effects of television. In The Cable Guy, Jim Carrey’s character essentially suffers from television-induced psychosis. Andy’s relationship with pop culture, and television in particular, is just as intense, but nowhere near as dark.
Pop culture has allowed Andy to extend his childhood indefinitely, to live in a world of toys, games, monsters, and superheroes, rather than one of girlfriends, careers, marriages, fatherhood, and responsibilities. Pop culture gives Andy a lot and asks nothing of him, but it also leaves him more than a little unfulfilled. His life is missing something, but it’s not sex so much as important relationships with people who don’t only exist as plastic replicas of minor characters in 1970s television shows.
In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, pop culture plays a number of different roles. It helps prolong Andy’s childhood indefinitely, but it also provides a vocabulary and set of shared experiences that connect the characters, even if that connection comes partly from a blinding hatred for Michael McDonald. Pop culture unites us by what we hate as much as by what we love, and I particularly responded to the running gag involving McDonald’s soul-killing ubiquity within the store because I spent four years working at Blockbuster Video, and I remember a four-month stretch where we were professionally required to play a special episode of Entertainment Tonight created specifically for Blockbuster on a never-ending loop. So over the course of a single shift I might see and hear the same inane half-hour of drivel 16 times in a row. As David’s cheerful opening threat of mass murder indicates, that kind of mindless repetition can do strange and terrible things to a man’s mind.
The running Michael McDonald gag perfectly captures the everyday trauma of being constantly subjected to someone else’s terrible pop-culture tastes, whether they’re a boss, a roommate, a partner, or someone else you can’t conclusively veto. But it’s also savvy enough to center on a perfect pop-culture reference, one that’s neither obvious nor obscure, and could definitely pass as the favorite artist of a middle-aged, creepily ingratiating middle-manager type and closet stoner. This seemingly throwaway gag tells us so much about Paula, about David, and about the store, but it also says a lot about how one person’s comfy consolation can be another person’s unending torment.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin’s references benefit from a specificity that never feels deliberately obscure or random. Pop culture is how these men relate to each other, even when it comes to sex. Take the oddly moving scene where David gives Andy his big box of porn, including a sad little video titled “Boner Jams” that applies the mixtape aesthetic to pornography. There’s something weirdly touching, as well as just plain weird, about a guy giving his buddy a carefully edited selection of pornographic scenes to which he’s masturbated. But there’s an additional meta-textual element to these pop-culture references, in that these men are so versed in the world of 1980s teen sex comedies that they sometimes seem to know that they’re in a sex comedy themselves, and behave accordingly. (Why else would three men be so deeply invested in relieving a co-worker of his virginity?) As with Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy, pop culture provides these young men with the narrative of how to live their lives, and they follow that script, whether they’re aware they’re doing so or not.
The film’s real triumph lies in Andy’s ability to break out of the raunchy, hilarious, yet inherently limited sex comedy he’s in and ascend to a higher level of life and entertainment. Andy accomplishes this by temporarily ignoring the goal pop culture insists all male virgins must pursue with single-minded mania—getting laid—in favor of the more substantive goal of growing up and becoming a responsible adult. Accordingly, when Andy passes the threshold to adulthood and ends the film by getting married to “sexy grandma” Trish (Catherine Keener) and subsequently losing his virginity, his ascension is lovingly broadcast through a song-and-dance number set to “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In,” the signature number from Hair, the quintessential musical of the 1960s. The symbolism is clear: Andy, a 1950s version of a clean-cut, wholesome, well-scrubbed virgin, is entering an era of peace and love, his very own Age Of Aquarius. But there’s also an inspired joke in casting the ultimate in conventional heteronormative values—a straight man waiting until marriage to have sex—as the embodiment of hippie-dippy counterculture bliss.
Nine years on, The 40 Year-Old Virgin is a cornerstone of contemporary pop culture, the big bang from which the whole Apatow universe emerged. The film has come full circle. If the language and raunch weren’t deal-breakers, it’s easy to imagine the film playing on a constant loop at SmartTech, a soothingly familiar piece of pop culture whose comfy pleasures help make the everyday hassles of life as a wage slave seem a little less daunting, and the world as a whole a little kinder—not unlike the soothing sounds and inimitable presence of Michael McDonald.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion of The 40-Year-Old Virgin continues tomorrow with a staff forum on the film’s surprisingly traditional views on masculinity, its occasionally problematic take on sexuality, and its enduring effect on comedy and “The Apatow School,” plus much more. Then on Thursday, Noel Murray chimes in with a survey of Apatow’s pre-Virgin filmography.