There's little doubt in my mind that 2005, which will probably go down in history as The Summer Everyone Rushed to Define In the Middle of June, has above all else been The Summer of the Geek. With the possible exception of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, each of the season's blockbusters stem directly from geek culture – and don't tell me that film's gadget porn doesn't do something for the aformentioned demo. On the one hand, you've got a film like Revenge of the Sith, created by geeks/for geeks, manufactured in massive geek labs designed to exclude natural light and nagging women; on the other, a film like Fantastic Four, genetically engineered to exploit the fact that geeks, who build cred amongst themselves based on the items they collect and the cultural experiences on their resume, will spend money on anything. Both work towards the same goal: the promotion and preservation of some kind of massively over-inflated Revenge of the Nerds dialectic. If you don't think that Comic Con is a political event, then you've just not been paying attention.
The 40 Year-old Virgin taps into the newly-revitalized geek zeitgeist, but it's the first film I'm aware of that essentially intends to puncture the nerd fantasy bubble. Sure, it says – you can spend your entire life playing video games and adding tiny details to obscure collectibles and never opening your action figures – but if you just tone it down a little bit, you could also have sex with girls. More than just a dudecom, The 40 Year-Old Virgin is also a sorely needed geek self-critique.
If that's the question that immediately needs answering before the film can proceed – how can any guy manage to hit the four decade mark with out reaching a milestone that increasingly more of us conquer before we can legally drink or vote - then, in the case of our hero, Andy (Steve Carell), geekery does explain a lot of it. But the film also intends to remind us exactly how horrifying the dating scene can be, especially to someone who has taken themselves out of it. Because, really, at least at the beginning of the film, Andy doesn't think his problem has anything to do with his Halo score, or his apartment full of geek knick-knackery, or the fact that he can barely dress himself. He's pretty sure he's still a virgin for one reason and one reason only: it's because girls are, mostly, scary bitches.
The film traffics in aggressive misogyny at the outset, as the socially inept Andy confronts the three dudely co-workers who intend to save him from eternal celibacy. Ranking them from zero to worst: there's Dave (Paul Rudd), who alternately refers to his ex-girlfriend as an angel and "that whore"; there's Cal (Seth Rogen), who explains to Andy that dating women is like growing pot: "You have to spread a lot of seeds ... you wait for it to grow into a plant, and then you fuck the plant." Then there's Jay (Romany Malco). Jay obsessively cheats on his live-in girlfriend with a "hoodrat" who, as he brags, he's never seen standing up. What's Andy's problem? According to Jay, he "puts the pussy on a pedestal."
Nevermind the fact that the pussy probably wants nothing more than to be put on a pedestal – there's clearly nothing wrong with Andy that advice from these guys can fix. These well-meaning chauvinists are predictably shown to be every bit as clueless as their virgin friend. For awhile, it looks like no one is going to get laid unless some serious changes take place. Around minute 45, I wrote in my notebook, "What kind of a sex farce is this? If Blake Edwards was dead, he'd be rolling in his grave."
The climate of blunt dudeliness is slowly but surely counteracted by the white-light magic of one Catherine Keener, who plays the "hot grandma" who begins to coax Andy out of his shell. Keener has looked about 30 for about 10 years; she's actually a good 15 years older than that, and The 40 Year-Old Virgin doesn't try to hide her age. It's significant that when he starts getting ready to do it, Andy sets his sights not on the bethonged teenager you've seen in the TV commercials, but instead on a real-live adult.
And it's an adult film. There's very little easy, slapstick, gross-out humor here. Instead, the jokes – which by the way, are consistently, tear-inducingly funny – are largely character based. Keener and Carrell both turn in fully-realised performances. The words on the page aren't terribly concerned with reality, but the emotions driving the actions are. It's also interesting that, even though the film is absolutely drenched in verbal vulgarity, the ultimate message is firmly pro-family and pro-monogamy – and Andy's maturation in that direction doesn't feel tacked on or unearned.
Director Judd Apatow, who created Undeclared and Freaks and Geeks, has made a career out of practicing of advocacy for the underdog. That he's also got an obvious fondness and respect for the minutia of geekery – located primarily but not totally in the compulsive hoarding of fetish objects – makes Virgin less a tear-down than a gentle but insistent nudge. Apatow sees geek culture for what it is, and he balances his jabs at what's wrong with it with plenty of affection for what's great about it. The 40 Year-Old Virgin thus has a friendly but prescriptive thesis: "Dude, your high score will be there when you get back – now step away from the command center, and get thyself laid."