Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #8

Re: The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005)

As a Catholic film student I find your work very helpful for discerning what movies are morally acceptable. The question I have is one that is in much debate among my fellow Catholic film students. Would it be morally right to make the film The 40 Year Old Virgin. The film contains much crude and vulgar humor but sends the message that waiting until marriage to have sex might be the right way. I would appreciate your thoughts on the subject.

I’m delighted to hear that questions like this are being debated among Catholic film students. Critics can only contribute so much to shaping public discourse; our art is parasitic on the filmmaker’s art. We can call for filmmakers to make excellent and honorable films till we’re blue in the face, but only filmmakers can actually make it happen.

The 40 Year Old Virgin, along with Knocked Up and Juno, represents what critic Stephen Whitty has called the “Crude Romanticists”:

They are a just-missed-the-baby-boom generation raised on equal helpings of Mad magazine and their mom’s teary 4:30 Movie, of screenings of Porky’s and dreams of prom queens. They want to believe in happily-ever-after. But they also know their friends will rag them if they don’t cover it up with a dirty joke.

In other words, the crude element is what gives such films cred and enables them to sell the idealistic element to a jaded audience that wouldn’t otherwise buy it. To that extent, these films subvert the sex comedy genre by suggesting, essentially, that one can’t reduce sex to dirty jokes.

This is, I think, a somewhat hopeful sign, although The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up seem to me to try a little too hard to have their cake and eat it too — to subvert the sex comedy genre, but not before pushing the envelope as far as they can.

I put Juno in a different category. As crude as the first half-hour in particular is, there’s an authorial distance on the characters’ milieu; it doesn’t feel exploitative or prurient the way that much of The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up does.

Your perspective as a film student is somewhat different from the typical viewer’s. You aren’t asking whether it’s morally okay to watch such films, or even whether their net effect on the culture at large is more good than bad or vice versa. You’re interested in the legitimacy of making such films.

I think that filmmakers can legitimately treat crude subject matter, and even see the humor in it, while exposing the foibles of those with crude or limited outlooks on life. At the same time, restraint is needed to avoid gratuitous occasions of sin and a coarsening effect on viewers. In my judgment, Juno significantly achieves this, while The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, despite their positive elements, are more compromised and problematic.

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