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Experience required

Times Staff Writer

AFTER seeing Judd Apatow’s “The 40 Year-Old Virgin,” I am plagued by the feeling that I should say something emphatic and definitive about R-rated comedies. But that would unfairly peg its value to its incidental naughty bits, not to imply that the ratings system makes any kind of sense in the first place. All this talk about R-rated comedies reminds me of the time NBC’s Bob Wright griped in a leaked memo about how “The Sopranos” owed its popularity to its “violence, language and nudity,” which was a little like complaining that Moliere has endured because of the fart jokes. As HBO’s Chris Albrecht retorted, “There’s no gold mine at the end of the vulgar rainbow.”

Not to scare away the kids or anything, but what’s best about “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” isn’t the business with a plastic medical model of a vagina, the projectile vomit or even the onanistic interlude set to the strains of an old Lionel Richie hit (though that constitutes one of the movie’s most enjoyable moments). What’s best about it -- aside from the fact that it’s very funny -- is that, for a movie in which the most sophisticated jokes are variations on “you’re so gay,” it’s refreshingly grounded in reality and (dare I suggest?) emotionally mature.

After watching actor Steve Carell, who co-wrote “Virgin” with Apatow, impersonate a semi-sentient slab of concrete in “Anchorman,” my hopes for the movie were not high. But “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” takes a premise that, in less competent, less empathetic hands, would have had the depth of a pancake, gives it a soul and turns it into a surprisingly sweet and funny ode to male friendship and middle-aged love.

Don’t let the poster fool you: Andy (Carell) is not the cluelessly grinning Boy Scout on the poster. Nor is he a pathetic, mean-spirited joke, like the one overplayed by Will Ferrell in the “Wedding Crashers.” An electronics store employee who lives alone with his carefully preserved action figures (including a particularly valuable one of Oscar Goldman, boss of “The Six Million Dollar Man”), Andy is just a lonely, socially awkward guy who is painfully aware of the strangeness of his situation, which has shamed him into a life of well-ordered, celibate seclusion. He’s not really all that weird. He’s just sensitive.

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Over the years and out of necessity, Andy has learned to spend quality time with himself; and his daily routine -- unaffected by cohabitation -- resembles something that might have been programmed by a conscientious 12-year-old and his mother. He’s meticulous about his grooming and breakfast habits, and spends his free time painting fantasy figurines, playing video games and practicing the trumpet. When his co-workers David (Paul Rudd), Jay (Romany Malco) and Cal (Seth Rogen) invite him to fill in during a poker game one night, he’s as quietly excited (he dresses up in an argyle sweater and a blue blazer) as he is cautiously apprehensive. Andy has learned to bluff his way through conversations about sex, but he’s not what you’d call good at it. And when he infelicitously describes a fictional girlfriend’s breast as the tactile equivalent of a bag of sand, his cover is blown.

Rather than pounce, David, Jay and Cal immediately take it upon themselves to rectify the situation. And soon they’re pushing him into the path of an attractive customer who slips Andy her card before leaving the store. A single mother of three and grandmother of one (or as she prefers to put it, “I have a kid who has a kid!”), Trish (Catherine Keener) owns a store across the street, but Andy puts off calling her, on the advice of his co-workers, until he can gain some initial sexual experience elsewhere. This decision lands him in the passenger seat of a car driven by the dead drunk Nicky (Leslie Mann), on a speed-dating session with a straight-curious lesbian and in the bathroom of an uninhibited salesgirl played by Elizabeth Banks. It also gets him into a waxing salon, where a woman tries gamely to clear-cut his rain forest of a chest.

Carell allows Andy to be subjected to these humiliations but never to be humiliated. You can see his character struggle with the mortifying adolescent idiocy of trying to get laid for the first time. Keener, as always, is preternaturally cool and funny; to watch her is to wonder why she doesn’t show up in twice as many movies as she does. (And then to remember what’s wrong with most movies.) In “Lovely & Amazing,” she played a 36-year-old former homecoming queen who never adapted to adult life, and she exudes that quality again here, without the bitterness. Like Andy, Trish doesn’t fit neatly into a category. She’s his flip side, in a sense: an original soul who has reached a similar place via an entirely different path: She got pregnant young, her marriage failed, and she finds herself lonely and adrift in a world that doesn’t entirely make sense to her.

Apatow has a gift for coaxing contemporary characters out of specific cultural environments. There’s no outlandish or grotesque explanation for Andy’s virginity, for instance. Instead it’s a human reaction to steadily applied cultural pressure, which makes it funny but also poignant. When his well-meaning friends get too insensitive or play jokes, or when Trish (who has no idea) grows impatient with his lack of sexual interest, we watch him retreat into himself. By then, you’re thoroughly invested in Andy’s coming out of his shell, and seriously rooting. You also feel like you know the guy well enough so that when the big consummation scene rolls around, it’s a little like walking in on your parents. Avert your eyes and hold your breath. The final scene is pure, joyful comic relief.

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‘The 40 Year-Old Virgin’

MPAA rating: R for pervasive sexual content, language and some drug use

Times guidelines: Contains suggestive sexual scenes

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Universal Pictures presents an Apatow production. Director Judd Apatow. Screenplay Judd Apatow and Steve Carell. Editor Brent White. Music Lyle Workman. Art director Tom Reta. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes. In general release.


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