After the first UK screening of Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, a representative of Universal cornered me in the lobby for an opinion. ‘Apatow gets where Cameron Crowe wants to go; the new Billy Wilder,’ I gushed, and I’d probably dial that back in retrospect. But Apatow is a major force in film-making, creating vehicles for a variety of talents, even if his own entries are growing longer and, well, rather less funny (Funny People, This is 40).
In 2005, Apatow nailed the formula for his socially relevant rom-com/bromance cocktail with The 40 Year Old Virgin, which propelled Steve Carell to further comic and serious work, and also introduced a gallery of performers who would form a repertory company for him. As Andy Stitzer, Carell plays a man unlucky in love; due to accidents, emergencies and a general fear of life, Andy is still untouched by physical pleasure, and the crew who share his electronics-shop workplace (including Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd and Jane Lynch) are keen to help him with his predicament. Potential problem-solvers include Leslie Mann as a drunk, and Catherine Keener as Trish, a good-hearted grandma who runs an Ebay shop in Santa Monica. Jonah Hill, Kevin Hart and a few other notables contribute one-scene cameos, and there’s a sunny curtain call set to Let The Sunshine In from Hair.
But Apatow’s writing wasn’t yet in thrall to contrivance here; Andy’s obsession with old movies and comics is tackled as a symptom of his loneliness, but when Andy meets Trish and she offers to sell off his toys on Ebay, Andy can’t quite make the jump to letting go of his pain. It’s a poignant metaphor for self-repair and development; Andy’s reclusive habits are his body armour, his protection, and he can’t yet trust Trish by letting go of them. Cinema has long-since embraced its inner fan-boy, for better or for worse, but it feels like an age ago that such studied adolescence might have seemed like a character weakness rather than an indulged strength.
The 40 Year Old Virgin stoops to some pretty low gags at times, and is frequently cruder than it needs to be. But Carrell and Keener are both finely tuned into their characters; Apatow may dig the male banter, but he also takes the time to make Trish a three-dimension person rather than a reward or goal. That kind of expanded world-view seems to have shrunk from Apatow’s perception of late, but The 40 Year Old Virgin manages to sneak in witty societal commentary under the guise of promising gross-out laughs.
Oh, yes, and there’s a cameo by US political figure and presidential muse Stormy Daniels….