Comedy proves forced chastity scores more than laughs

Chastity! It’s the vow of religious leaders, the cornerstone of the Bush sex education program and now it’s the subject of a top-grossing motion picture.

OK, so the chastity of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” isn’t voluntary. Andy (Steve Carell), the painfully awkward title character, hasn’t chosen abstinence as much as resigned himself to it. Without many friends, he amuses himself at home with his wall-to-wall action figures and ’80s band posters. The movie establishes nearly everything you need to know about Andy within his first minutes onscreen: he’s a man who not only rides a bike to work, but removes the wheel when he gets there in case anyone plans to steal it. It’s not much of a shock to learn he’s as na?ve about sex as a twelve-year-old Mormon.

Here’s what is shocking: this movie is funny. Really funny.

“Virgin” thankfully values creativity over clich?. Andy doesn’t make it with a young foreign exchange student, nor does he stumble upon a beautiful girl who just happens to love “The Six Million Dollar Man” as much as he does. Instead, his love interest is Trish (Catherine Keener), a smart, offbeat single mother and – gasp! – grandmother.

Meanwhile, his pursuit of first-time booty is a journey much less tiring than the misogynist antics of the “Deuce Bigalow” movies (and then he meets a disabled woman! and then he meets a fat woman!). Instead it holds funny insights into the world of sex and dating. In one of the cleverest scenes, Andy manages to charm the pants off a pretty bookstore clerk simply by repeating everything she says in the form of a question.

Somehow, we can root for the hero even while laughing at his misfortune, as in the brutal scene where his forest of chest hair is waxed off one strip at a time. It’s probably because of Carell, who co-wrote the screenplay and created “Virgin” in his early days of improvisational comedy.

Carell’s career has included scene-stealing supporting characters like the mentally-retarded weatherman of “Anchorman” and one of Jon Stewart’s handful of “Daily Show” regulars.

Carell treats Andy with surprising sensitivity and there’s something lovable about his insecurity, channeled through hopeful eyes, averted glances and the way he seems to force curse words out against his own mouth’s resistance. While the other male characters conceal their sexual anxiety with overzealousness and gay jokes, Andy wears it on his sleeve. “I respect women,” he insists. “So much that I completely stay away from them!”

Carell isn’t a household name, but he has the gift of old-school Bill Murray or lately Jim Carrey for balancing an outlandish character with glimpses of humanity.

He’s supported well by the rest of the actors. Keener, best known as the woman who seduced both Jon Cusack and Cameron Diaz in “Being John Malkovich,” plays Trish as a refreshingly imperfect love interest. Andy’s sex-chasing buddies – womanizer Jay (Romany Malco), sardonic Cal (Seth Rogan) and crushed romantic Dave (Paul Rudd) – have great wisecracking chemistry and deliver the movie’s most quotable one-liners. There is also a unique cast of wacky minor characters, including Jane Lynch (“Best In Show”) as Andy’s boss, who occasionally seems to be minutes away from bad-touching.

The movie was directed and co-written by Judd Apatow of “Freaks and Geeks,” an unconventional teen show that was praised by critics, worshipped by cult fans and virtually ignored by everyone else with a television. On that series, encouraging actors to improvise beyond their scripted dialogue resulted in material funnier and more real than ordinary TV. It’s obvious that some of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” was shot the same way.

The movie does begin to drag in the last half-hour, but by the shamelessly bizarre final scene that must be seen to be believed, it’s clear the director and cast have created an instant classic worthy of another viewing. Like sex, as Andy learns by the end of the movie, I suspect “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” gets even better after the first time.