Monday, April 21, 2008

Storywh0re from the vault - The 40-year-old-Virgin

For a long time, I resisted watching The 40-Year-Old-Virgin. While my personal attitudes are far more sex-positive now than they were twenty or even ten years ago, I expected the movie to be rooted in locker-room perceptions of sex and masculinity. I was pleasantly surprised to read so many reviews describing it instead as warm, funny and even-handed. I finally watched it last night, and what I found was something in between, although ultimately more the latter than the former.

Two years after the movie's release, the premise is probably familiar to most moviegoers. Andy Sitzer, an isolated electronics store employee, admits to his co-workers that, for various reasons, he has never had sex. In the process of trying to help him, they become his friends, bewildering him with their varied and contradictory perspectives on today's muddled sexual politics. He finally meets someone he cares about, and ironically, she decides that they should wait and get to know each other before becoming intimate. (There is one huge medical inaccuracy in the movie, but I won't describe it!)

The first thing that got my attention was how well the film captures the complexity of modern life. Andy's workplace illustrates both inter-racial and intra-racial tensions. The love interest, Trish, is a young grandmother with a complex family situation. A trip to the health department illustrates epidemic sexual misinformation, among both youth and adults, even as society becomes more sexualized. Andy's adventures in dating also feel very contemporary, from the “straight” bar where girls openly snog together to the butch speed-dating bisexual who is "transitioning" back to men.

Not all of these images feel friendly or fair-minded. The character of Jay represents misogynist attitudes that exist all across society, through the lens of the Black community. When confronted by belligerent, stereotyped behavior, he responds by acting the same way. In the end, we're supposed to infer that he has grown up, just because he shows off some sonogram footage and minimizes his own infidelity. I would have felt much more comfortable if there had been at least one more positive, or even more balanced, Black character. Then, there is the “why you're gay” discussion that treads the line between hilarious and offensive.

Also toward the end of the movie, Andy is repulsed by a seductive display from Beth, a woman he picks up when he thinks he's driven Trish away. On the one hand, it's easy to imagine how anyone might be turned off by what she's doing. It's like a pre-packaged porn fantasy that has nothing to do with Andy as an individual. It's good to see the movie elevate women like Trish instead, who are whole in themselves and behave authentically. Unfortunately, the script never quite escapes the Madonna-whore dichotomy or the old Double Standard (R, TM). “I hit that a while back”, Jay explains as he leads Andy away from Beth.

I hesitate to pigeonhole myself by making feminist critique my “shtick” as a reviewer; but this movie is surprisingly ripe for it. All of the characters struggle for self-respect and wholeness in our MySpace-meets-Girls-Gone Wild culture. Trish accepts the news about Andy's inexperience very well, but I did wish that I had been more assured of her eventual sexual happiness. (The musical number at the end also kind of lost me.) The love story and the coming of age story are the real point, and I enjoyed them.

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