Retro Rental: 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin'

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Universal Pictures

[Each week, inspired by what's in theaters or in the news or even just by random firings of neurons, 'Retro Rental,' by film critic James Rocchi, looks at an older film on disc or download that links up to the here-and-now ...]

'Seeking a Friend for the End of the World' opens this Friday, and it got me thinking how good a comedic actor Steve Carell is, and why, exactly, that is. And that made me think about 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin,' and how that film -- which is the one that made Carell a star in 2005 at the age of 43  -- didn't just give Carell a showcase but also, gave his very particular gifts a workout. I'll explain.

I'm not a psychiatrist, or a psychologist, but I do know that one of the keys of comedy is laughter, and one of the keys of laughter is the release of tension; we laugh because something we didn't think was going to happen happen, or didn't think was going to be said was said, and that gap -- between expectation and reality, between what we thought was going on and what actually is -- is what we laugh at as our mind joyfully jumps from set up to punchline.

And Carell, in 'Seeking a Friend,' wears a look precisely like that Charlie Brown has before he runs at the football for Lucy to pull it away. Now, for Carell, it's not Lucy saying take a kick at the ball all the time, but rather life itself, and yet he keeps sighing, setting his jaw and running down field towards the ball -- in pursuit of happiness -- and instead he flies through the air to land on his back knowing that he has only himself to blame for this. And yet we don't just laugh at Charlie Brown, we like him -- because he truly, sincerely believes that one day, his foot will connect with the ball, just as Carell's best characters -- characters, not shouty bits like Brick in 'Anchorman' or accented bits like 'Gru' in 'Despicable Me' -- constantly move towards the ball's promise of fun, not the guarantee it'll get snatched away.

And there's a reason why Andy Stitzer (even the name is perfect) in 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin' is one of Carell's best parts in that specific vein, and why the film itself is so damn good. Andy's hopes are unusual (the pitch, in case you've forgotten is that after finding out that, at 40, Andy's never had sex, a group of friends bludgeon him with advice to try and make it happen) but his heart is good. Many people find 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin' a little mean towards women, especially when Andy's co-workers and co-conspirators Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen and Romany Malco are dispensing advice ('' .. look for, like, a girl with a busted heel …") to Andy about how to seal the deal and do the deed, but it's also important to note that Andy only follows their advice occasionally, and it is invariably a disaster; Andy's real relationship in the film, with Trish (an extraordinary Catherine Keener) works because of his intrinsic decency guiding him in social circumstances. Yes, the friends are wrong; they're supposed to be.

And yet, Carell, like Charlie Brown, also knows when to give off a good "WAAAAAAUUUUUUGH" -- although maybe not in the exact words of good ol' Charlie Brown, and not in a way that makes us worry about him or feel weird about him; when Andy, after a disastrous (real, on-screen) chest-waking, he simply takes in his bleeding, only partially de-furred chest and stomach and says "This … is NOT a good look for me!" Carell gets to do some of that in 'Seeking a Friend' -- there's one little thing someone could have done for him that they didn't when they should have, and he kind of loses his stuff over it -- but, again, at the end of the day he calms down, squares his shoulders and runs downfield towards the ball with hope in his heart. Yes, it looks funny. But it looks funny because, really, if we're being honest with ourselves, it looks like us.

'The 40-Year-Old Virgin' is available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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