Monday, January 30, 2006

Musing Pictures: "The 40 Year Old Virgin"

Comedy is tough. Whenever I see a comedy that I enjoy, it occurs to me that I should pay more attention, because comedy is tough.

"The 40 Year Old Virgin" is a comedy of awkwardness, in the way that everything from Charlie Chaplin to Mr Bean is comedy of awkwardness. The nice thing about the film's star, Steve Carell, is that he manages to pull off some true, genuine sentiment, in a way that is closer to Chaplin (or, really, to Buster Keaton, who, I feel, is better at it, because of his face). Despite its bawdy subject matter, the film really comes across as a pleasant, genuine little story, and it's Carell who is responsible for that.

Perhaps seeing a similarity to Buster Keaton isn't as farfetched as I thought it would be a few sentences ago. As I think on it, the film does include some physical, chase-related comedy (in cars, on bikes, on foot, etc.) and throughout it, the funniest part is Carell's face. His gift for comedic expression is remarkable, especially considering how quickly other actors over-emphasize their reactions to get a cheap laugh.

To my mind, there's something very intricate about comedy, and somewhere tied in to that intricacy is the supremacy of subtlety in comedic arts. I think that's why I prefer Keaton to Chaplin (although Chaplin knew extremely well the importance of subtlety, as well). I think that's why "Old Stoneface" Keaton hasn't been matched by other physical comedians/stuntment like Jackie Chan (who is quite funny, but not as sublime).

No, Carell is not a stuntman, as far as I know, but his ability to not only control his face, but to understate his own expression is where I feel he is most like Keaton. I wonder what his career will look like down the road. Comedians with highly over-expressive faces (Robin Williams, Jim Carrey etc.) have been attempting transitions to non-comic forms (Williams has been more successful, it seems... Jamie Foxx has been most successful of any of them). A subtle, under-expressive face seems more at home in drama than comedy, so I wonder, twenty years from now, when Carell is tired of that Same Old Thing, what will his dramas look like?

Also, a side-note on the film: It looks like a sitcom -- the lighting, the sets, even the staging of characters. Interestingly, the cinematographer (Jack N. Green) has had almost no interaction with television at all (although he was cinematographer for the cinematic adaptation, "Serenity", which had its origins on TV). The director, of course, (Judd Apatow), is a veteran of the television world, and a relative newby to the big screen (this is his first stint as director...)



Anonymous said...

i thought this comedy was about the sad lives of overworked americans. where all one can do is chase girls or sell something in a chain store. the comedy was always ironic--all the characters were sad and pathetic in the way they lead empty lives. For the 40 year old virgin character, Love (as it always appears in movies) is redemptive, but it can't change the american doldrums of work,work,work...

AzS said...

Well, yes, it is that, too. In this film, though, it seems to change at least some of those American doldrums... he goes in and starts his own business, after all -- it's still lots of work, but it's a step closer to that odd ideal, "The American Dream"...