Like This Virgin

Steve Carell doesn't mess around in his new comedy

In The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Steve Carell plays Andy Stitzer, a man who, though past the age of 39, has not yet ever had penile/vaginal intercourse. Oops, now I've gone and given away the key plot twist! Next time I'll put up a "spoiler" warning.

Once you know the main premise the rest of the plot pretty much unfolds exactly as you'd expect: Andy tries to lay some pipe. It's an ancient tale dating back to the crumbling Hollywood Hills Scrolls of 500 B.C.: Boy meets Aquaman figurine, boy loses Aquaman figurine, boy finally dips it.

What sets this particular incarnation apart is an amazing performance by the versatile Steve Carell, who is to comedic acting what Buddha is to dharma. Without actually having a lot of jokes or strictly comedic lines, Carell manages to get laughs by sheer force of the weirdness of his delivery. Everything coming out of his mouth sounds like it's being said by, well, a 40-year-old virgin. There's an uncomfortable lack of rhythm in his speech, as though each word were carefully considered, found to be the wrong word, and then blurted out anyway because he has no idea of what else to say. It's an effect that can't be captured on paper, which shows the faith the screenwriters had in Carell's ability. Then again, one of the screenwriters is Steve Carell, so I guess he knew what he was getting into, but if you simply read the lines aloud in a normal tone of voice it would probably be about as interesting as reading David Souter's diary. Actually, the script was probably based on David Souter's diary (shout out to all my fellow SCOTUS fans out there!).

Carell doesn't just speak his lines into the Batman telephone or 6 Million Dollar Man megaphone that he keeps in his geek-studded apartment, though. Instead, he's surrounded by a supporting cast who are so good you just want to take them all out and buy them muffins and Academy Awards.

While there's no surprise in the quality of the performances by Paul Rudd, who has now been promoted to America's finest second banana, or Jane Lynch, who made A Mighty Wind blow that much harder, relative newcomer Seth Rogen turns in a best of show outing that neatly mirrors Carell's work.

Rogen also gets laughage (it's a technical term) out of seemingly ordinary lines by virtue of his sad, yet impassioned, readings. He and Rudd, along with Romany Malco (who's fine, but he's really more of a dramatic actor who does comedy in a by-the-books manner) play the friends who are trying to help Andy get laid. It's a pretty unoriginal premise, basically Porky's updated for our modern theocracy, but the thoughtful direction and actually touching human elements really set it apart from its 1980s teen sex comedy forebears.

And thoughtful direction isn't really the hallmark of sex comedies, so I have to give a lot of credit to writer/director Judd Apatow. In one scene, the characters are talking about dating and sex and effluvia and such, but during the discussion Apatow has Rudd and Rogen smashing fluorescent light bulbs in a loading dock area. They never comment on what they're doing, but it really brings to the fore what their characters are about, and it's an excellent demonstration of the movie adage that everyone needs an action.

Apatow slides the film very carefully into the narrow crack between the left butt cheek of crass comedy and the right butt cheek of heartwarmingness without smearing it with feces, a little trick the Farrelly brothers have never quite gotten the hang of. He gets a lot of help in this regard from Catherine Keener, who plays the sexy grandma with whom Andy falls in love. Keener has long been considered one of our finest film actresses, though she's not exactly known for her comedic roles. Understanding that, Apatow casts her as the straight woman to the so-straight-he's-funny Carell. That's a tough position, since she has to find a natural way to respond to his unnatural diction, but she completely pulls it off and in the process makes the film seem real and human, which helps a lot when the central premise is as thin as it is here.

That premise is fattened up by more than just the acting and directing, though. The set decoration, especially of Andy's apartment, is simultaneously mean, loving and accurate. The walls are covered with such obvious elements as superhero toys, but there are also subtle touches, like a framed poster of the cover of Asia's first album. I mean, seriously, what chronic masturbator can't remember finding him or herself in '82, when the disco hotspots held no charm for you?

The soundtrack is equally cunning, using the theme song from Greatest American Hero as background for the couple-in-love montage, as well as select cuts from such purveyors of horror as Michael McDonald, Corey Hart and Flock of Seagulls. But the best moment, musically, comically and visually, may be the glorious dance sequence at the end. As everyone knows, all films should end with an old-school, Twyla Tharp-ish dance sequence. Sadly, so few do. But then, so few have the smarts of 40-Year-Old Virgin.