'The 40-Year-Old Virgin,' 5 Years Later


Universal Pictures

The march of time is inevitable, and I'm hitting the age when it advances in ever-more-rapid spurts. One of those came last weekend when I realized that The 40-Year-Old Virgin is five years old. It feels like we've been living in a world Judd Apatow created for us for much longer than that.

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In terms of actors, it wasn't as if Steve Carrell was unemployed, or unfunny, before the movie came out, but Apatow gave him a role that made him immortal. Paul Rudd's resurgence from a confused, fallow point in his career got its start the year before in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, but the softer, sentimental character he played in 40-Year-Old Virgin helped establish him as the most dominant movie nice guy of the latter half of the decade. Jane Lynch stormed out of the movie to become the funniest woman on screens large and small—a distinction Betty White is currently attempting to earn for herself. Hell, Elizabeth Banks parlayed a tiny role as a bookstore freak with a multi-purpose shower head into a rich and varied career that's included roles as Laura Bush in Oliver Stone's W and Alec Baldwin's girlfriend on 30 Rock. That Romany Malco hasn't had more career good fortune since is too bad, since he's one of the funniest, most ferocious people in the movie, but someone had to draw the short end of the stick, right?

And perhaps most importantly, Seth Rogen was sullen and clever in Apatow's early television projects, but he was hilariously filthy in Virgin, paving the way for a world in which guys who are, as his character put it, are "ugly as fuck, by traditional standards...[but] still get with women," one of the key developments in movies this decade, and a major contribution to the death of the conventional Hollywood leading man. There's been a lot of debate over whether Apatow's movies are a diversionary defense of the family, but whatever the state of their relationships, Adam Serwer's right that the movies are about the many ways in which their male leads try, and fail, to perform various forms of contemporary American manliness.

And the movie was a more important transition, a turning point in romantic comedies from movies where people talked to each other like we wish we could, to movies where characters talked to each other like we do every day. Sure, there's no gem in Virgin like this moment, from The Lady Eve (the scene starts around 5:15):

Then again, we live in a fallen world where there are no women like Barbara Stanwyck anymore. But something like this scene at the clinic is that scene's contemporary equivalent*:

The language is coarser, but it's the same kind of commentary on sex, posturing and society. It's not aspirational—it's just honest, and maybe even a little bit of a comedown.

*There is a hilarious—and surprisingly raunchy despite the restrictions on what could be shown or said—sexual-experience-related subplot in The Lady Eve, for those not in the know.