They Said What?! is a biweekly column in which we explore the highs and lows of film criticism through history. How did critics feel about it at the time, and do we see it differently now? Chris Coffel explores.
Judd Apatow’s work has been a fixture on screens big and small for the last thirty years. His sixth film as director, The King of Staten Island, is now available on VOD services. To celebrate, we’re going to take a stroll back in time and revisit his 2005 directorial debut, The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
The film, starring Steve Carell, Catherine Keener, Paul Rudd, Romany Malco, and Seth Rogen, served as a breakthrough for Apatow. At the time, he had established himself as a relatively successful writer, having penned scripts for Heavyweights and Celtic Pride. His biggest claim to fame, however, was in the world of television, where he was known for creating Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, two shows that were canceled far too soon. The release of The 40-Year-Old Virgin launched Apatow from moderate success to one of the leading names in comedy.
Critics were surprised and impressed by the way Apatow took a one-joke premise that in most hands would be nothing more than a raunchy sex comedy and delivered something more with it. In his review for The Washington Post, Michael O’Sullivan wrote, “There’s something deeper, or at least slightly different than you might expect.” O’Sullivan described the movie as “a symphony with blue humor” that’s “actually an excellent date movie.”
In his review for The New Yorker, David Denby credited the film’s success to its ability to be “truly dirty and truly romantic at the same time.” Denby described the film’s comedy as “coarse and obvious as a burlesque show and almost as foul-mouthed as [the documentary] The Aristocrats” but felt it was appropriately balanced “with considerable delicacy, psychological insight, and a surprising sense of detail.”
Nathan Rabin of the AV Club felt the film was essentially two separate movies. On one hand, you’ve got “a raunchy, cartoonish Anchorman-like stoner comedy,” Rabin wrote, and on the other, “a refreshingly adult but decidedly unfunny middle-aged romance about the fumbling courtship between a naïve hero with too little experience and a frustrated single mother/entrepreneur.” Rabin felt that the film would have fallen apart if not for the “skill and charm of Carell and his supporting players.”
Roger Ebert gave the film 3.5 out of 4 stars, calling it “surprisingly insightful” with “a good heart and a lovable hero.” Ebert praised the film for having fun with the characters in a light-hearted way intended to humanize them rather than aim for the cheap laughs. Ebert said the engine that made the film work was the duo of Carell and Keener, in large part because they share “a rare kind of chemistry that is maybe better described as mutual sympathy.”
In her review for the Los Angeles Times, Carina Chocano wrote that the film “would have had the depth of a pancake” had it not been for Carell and Apatow turning it “into a surprisingly sweet and funny ode to male friendship and middle-aged love.” Like Ebert, Chocano felt the characters were treated with respect, saying, “Carell allows Andy to be subjected to these humiliations but never to be humiliated.”
While the film was overwhelmingly popular amongst critics, not everyone was a fan. Lou Lumenick openly called himself a “party pooper” for not liking the film more in his review for the New York Post. Lumenick felt the film was one joke “stretched out for nearly two hours” and “garnished with yards of misogynistic, homophobic and racist quips.” Lumenick did like moments of the film but ultimately concluded that Apatow “has little feel for big-screen pacing and lets almost every scene run far too long.”
Slate critic David Edelstein agreed with Lumenick, calling the film “too long, too sexist, and too—shall we say—flaccid.” In his review, Edelstein praised Apatow and Carell for their TV work, but felt that didn’t translate to movies, writing “when brilliant TV-comedy guys do big-studio multiplex movies, they put on their stupid hats.” Edelstein was amused by Rogen, however, calling him “hilariously matter-of-fact as he details assorted acts of sex and bestiality.”
Count Seattle Times critic Moira MacDonald among those that felt the film was simply too long. MacDonald wrote that it “could have been a very funny 80-minute movie,” but unfortunately “it’s trapped in a not-quite-so-funny two-hour movie.” In MacDonald’s eyes, the film’s funniest moments were lost between too much “padding, and empty dialogue.”
These days, The 40-Year-Old Virgin’s reputation seems to have held up quite well for most. Ten years after the film was released, Scott Tobias crowned the film as “the most influential comedy in a decade” in a piece for GQ. In the article, Tobias argues that the film made comedy a “blockbuster event” and “upended the teen-sex-comedy formula.” Rolling Stone credited the movie with creating the “modern-comic urtext” for “the heavily improvised, ensemble-cast manchild farce,” while placing the film ninth on its list of the 50 best comedies of the 21st century.
Apatow’s follow-up films have received similar praise over the years and time will tell if The King of Staten Island joins them. But if The 40-Year-Old Virgin taught us anything, it’s that you never forget your first.