Some art-house programmer would be wise to schedule a double bill of The Aristocrats, Paul Provenza's talkumentary about the dirtiest joke ever told, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, writer-director Judd Apatow's near-brilliant movie about a grown-up geek who simply lost interest in trying to get laid. Both offer countless giddy variations on simple, archaic and utterly foul jokes involving sticking body parts into other body parts. Save for a stray nipple played for giggles and a quick glimpse at some relatively tame porn in Virgin, both movies elicit their deep, exhausting laughs solely from the use of the foulest language imaginable; at least one of them sneaks in the phrase "shit-stained balls," and it might have been both. And where The Aristocrats' hundred-plus participants merely talk about bodily fluids being splashed about, The 40-Year-Old Virgin isn't ashamed to get a little wet.
The virgin is played by former Daily Show "correspondent" Steve Carell, inching toward surprising leading-man status with his role here and in NBC's The Office, in which he's so deadpan-dry, you could sandpaper old furniture with his delivery. In Virgin, as action-figure-obsessed Andy Stitzer, Carell reveals himself capable of playing it sincere and straight without being a dull-tipped arrow; the guy curses as much as his buddies at work, at a Best Buy knockoff called Smart Tech, only the words stick in his throat before they come out of his crooked mouth. In the hands of any other filmmaker, Andy would be the biggest schmuck in the room -- a creepy, goofy idiot in love with plastic people because he can't connect to real ones; a virgin not by design, but because he's too dumpy to hump.
But Carell, who co-wrote the film and thus has an emotional investment in Andy, and Apatow are ultimately as soft and sentimental as their movie is crude and obscene. They love Andy, perhaps because deep down they used to be Andy, and they refuse to make him the butt of the joke. He's tortured (Carell purportedly actually had much of his human monkey suit waxed off in one painfully hysterical sequence), he's humiliated (drenched in the daiquiri-flavored puke of a would-be date, played by Apatow's wife, Leslie Mann), and he's mocked relentlessly by men and women who find his choice of lifestyles inexplicable at best and disturbing at worst. But rather than laugh at Andy, the audience feels for him: He didn't set out to go sexless, but the choice suits him fine. He's no Lonely Guy, drab and listless and self-pitying, just a single guy who's found other things (comic books, video games, the awful rock band Asia) with which to fill his empty moments.
Apatow, especially, has been writing about Andy for much of his career -- as a writer and director on Freaks and Geeks and as creator of Undeclared, comedies about the romantically hapless that could be considered sort-of prequels to Virgin, and not merely because it shares actors with both of those TV shows. (Most prominent is Seth Rogen as Cal, one of the three horny idiots who discover Andy's a virgin and try like hell to rectify the situation.) Apatow has particular affection for the man who doesn't quite belong to any group -- someone who's too much a dork to sit at the cool kids' table but not stunted enough to sit with the outcasts. And he, too, is as obsessed with the accouterments of nostalgia as Andy, who lives in an apartment surrounded by his collection of action figures still in their original packaging (including an Iron Man doll, purchased when he was in second grade -- and precisely what kind of child doesn't rip open the box to play with the toy?).
Ultimately, of course, Andy meets his perfect match in Trish (Catherine Keener), already a grandmother in her mid-40s and the proprietor of a storefront in which people come to sell their junk on eBay. Theirs feels like a real relationship between two damaged people, at once playful and awkward as they agree not to have sex till they know each other better. In the meantime, the guys who want to get Andy laid -- his co-workers Cal, David (Paul Rudd), Jay (Romany Malco, in a role that might have gone to Vince Vaughn) and manager Paula (Chris Guest regular Jane Lynch) -- suffer their own humiliating setbacks. David, especially, is a sort of tragic figure, a big-talker still tortured by a long-over relationship with a woman who, it turns out, loathed him from the very beginning. Love, David comes to realize, is less about happiness than it is inevitable "suffering."
Virgin is astoundingly astute, but also wondrously clever, written with more care and joy than any hundred comedies to come out of Hollywood in years; even the throwaway lines and casual asides are a panic, funnier than the most underlined and italicized bit of dialogue in Wedding Crashers. And in its gleefully perverse, decidedly obscene way, The 40-Year-Old Virgin is the best sort of romantic comedy -- a movie in which the characters earn and deserve their happiness after stepping on a thousand land mines before reaching the promised land. It's a dick joke with heart.