Sunday, July 29, 2007

MASCULINITY IN "THE 40-YEAR-OLD-VIRGIN"

The 40-Year-Old Virgin (unrated DVD version) accurately depicts the insecurity, homophobia and general neurosis at work among a group of straight men by distilling the major elements of modern masculinity into a constantly fluctuating subversion and reassertion of stereotype.

Andy, the titular virgin, is so humanized by Steve Carell’s performance that we sometimes forget that he is a high-concept creation, his quirks calibrated for maximum punchline potential rather than for insight into humanity. (Right?) At the beginning of the film, Andy’s lifestyle is prepubescent, centered around action figures and videogames. His only friends are an old couple he watches Survivor with and at work he is unable to communicate meaningfully with either co-workers or customers. Despite this, and despite the film’s many serial killer jokes, Andy doesn’t come off as creepy or deeply abnormal. He seems like a pretty regular guy, and innocent, above all. We don’t identify with him, but we also don’t feel sorry for him or laugh when he is made the butt of jokes by his co-workers (I’m thinking specifically of the scene in which a minor character tells him “we’ve got to get you some punanny,” but a few other scenes as well.) The situations Andy finds himself in are only the result of naïveté, never social unease or stupidity like in the comedies of, say, Ben Stiller or Will Farrell. The flashback to three failed intimate situations in his past serves to reinforce the notion that Andy is merely inexperienced, not a weirdo or even in need of advice on how to get a woman into the bedroom. He just seems really uncomfortable once he gets them there (which is borne out later when the freak from the book store takes him home with her.)

Andy is surrounded by a group of men who are, quite realistically for a bunch of straight guys hovering around 30, sex-obsessed and casually homophobic. When they find out Andy is a virgin, they are so appalled by the discovery that they decide to take matters into their own hands. But their greater amount of experience doesn’t translate to wisdom. The more these guys try to interfere with Andy’s life, the more their own issues come to the forefront.

Romany Malco’s Jay is so insecure he cheats on his girlfriend constantly. Once his masculinity is given the ultimate proof in the form of his unborn son’s extraordinarily large penis, however, he is able to settle down and be faithful (we assume.) Paul Rudd’s David is the attractive-but-normal guy, until he starts talking too much about love, describing sex with an ex-girlfriend as like “sharing one heart.” This overly sensitive character is then subverted again when his love-talk turns to stalker-talk. Later his mention of celibacy immediately calls forth accusations of homosexuality from Seth Rogen’s Cal (mirroring the virginity-revelation scene when the guys assume Andy is gay after he describes the tactile qualities of a woman’s breast as being like “a bag of sand”) setting off an almost never-ending series of “You know how I know you’re gay?” jokes. In a later scene, Cal resorts to physical violence to coerce David into sleeping with a woman again, flicking and punching his testicles, giving physical form to the thesis these guys have been operating from regarding Andy all along: if you’re a man and you don’t want to bang as many as chicks as possible, there is either something horribly wrong with you or you are gay (which may just be the same thing.)

Cal, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to talk to women at all. Despite all his advice to Andy about listening and how he sleeps with women even though he’s “ugly as fuck,” we never really see him with a woman. The same pattern of stereotype subversion and reaffirmation at work through the character revelations in Jay, David and Andy, also come into play here with Cal. His stoner persona is given texture when he is revealed to be the most sensitive and insightful of the bunch, which he blames on the fact that he has a keen interest in human nature, since he’s a novelist. Later, of course, the stereotypical stoner is reasserted when we take a mocking look at Cal hard at work on his novel: “But Dad, I don’t know how to love. You never taught me how.”

(I’ve just realized that I’ve gotten this far into this essay without saying anything about any of the women in the film and, honestly, not intending to say much about them in the rest of it either. In my attempt to write something about the men I have totally excluded the women. So, before I return to the main flow of my argument, allow me to say: Catherine Keener gives an incredibly warm and wonderful performance as Trish, the woman that finally gets Andy to take his toys out of the box. Christopher Guest regular Jane Lynch is hilarious as the boss lady Paula, doing an amazing job of being just one of the boys and a woman in a position of power in the workplace all at once. None of the other women depicted in the film are given the second level—the substance behind the stereotype—that the men get.)

The (I’ll admit pretty bland) main theme being articulated throughout the film is stated early on by Mooj (played by the Don Rickles of Bangladesh, Gerry Bednob): life isn’t about sex, it’s about passion, people, connection. But without one, apparently, you can’t have the other, because Andy, by denying himself the physical act of love, has denied himself the emotional access to it as well. As I said above, though, Andy doesn’t appear creepy or hopeless, just inexperienced. After Trish gives Andy her number, the guys take him out to the bar to celebrate. This sets off an initiation ritual sequence in which Andy is inducted into the boys’ club in a big way, performing a number of firsts that most people would have gotten out of the way when they were teenagers. He gets drunk, smokes pot, watches porn, and pees in public. Later we see Trish giving him driving lessons and (in a big plot point) encouraging him to sell his toys, which she justifies, when challenged, by saying she’s just “trying to help [him] grow up.”

The 40-Year-Old-Virgin spends most of its time waffling back and forth between two impulses. To embrace the stereotypes and ram home the punchlines on the one hand, or to attempt to actually say something about people on the other. This is probably why its characters are always stopping and starting, on the verge of being a real person one moment, then collapsing back into sitcom posture the next. But, just maybe, the pattern of character development I’ve been highlighting has another purpose. Maybe it’s actually saying something about the way we grow up. And something that happens when you’re growing up is that you regress, every time you have a growth spurt, you reach backwards to what you’ve left behind. When Andy glimpses what adult life might really be like, he hesitates, retreats back into childhood, holds on tighter to his sealed up action figures. He gets over it by the end, of course. Everybody grows up eventually. (Or at least, everybody in a comedy does. For the tragic—and true—version, see Charles Crumb, the brother in Crumb.)

Because I have rambled all over the place and done a rather poor job of keeping focus on my supposed thesis, I feel justified in ending on a digression: If this film had depicted even one homosexual character, gave the opportunity for that voice to be expressed for just one moment, all those “you know how I know you’re gay” jokes would’ve been a whole lot funnier.

2 comments:

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Anonymous said...

Wow, very well written and smart. If this is what rambling looks like...I really got to practice writing.