Bright Lights Film Journal

The Best Sex in Contemporary Hollywood: Utopia, Ecstasy, and the (Classical) Musical Number in The 40-Year-Old Virgin

“There’s kind of nowhere else [the movie] could go.” — Steve Carrell

Ever since Smokey and the Bandit II (Hal Needham, 1980) included outtakes during its closing credit sequence, other film comedies have imitated this trend. For example, at the end of Cannonball Run (Hal Needham, 1981), Grumpy Old Men (Donald Petrie, 1993), Liar Liar (Tom Shadyac, 1997), Austin Powers in Goldmember (Jay Roach, 2002), and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (Adam McKay, 2006), audiences are treated to cast bloopers and mishaps. Even animated films like A Bug’s Life (John Lassester and Andrew Stanton, 1998), which of course have no true mess-ups, occasionally add outtakes to their credits. But lately, several of Hollywood’s closing credit sequences have been accompanied by something else entirely: musical numbers.

Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman suggests that this musical fad began with There’s Something about Mary (Bobby and Peter Farrelly, 1998), whose closing credits include the film’s cast and crew singing and dancing to the song “Build Me Up, Buttercup.” Following suit, Shrek (Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, 2001), Bend It Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha, 2002), Down with Love (Peyton Reed, 2003), School of Rock (Richard Linklater, 2003), Hitch (Andy Tennant, 2005), Night at the Museum (Shawn Levy, 2006), Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008), and I Love You, Man (John Hamburg, 2009) also showcase the films’ casts and crew members (and sometimes just random people) as they sing and/or dance to, respectively, “I’m a Believer,” “Hot, Hot, Hot,” “Here’s to Love,” “Now That We’ve Got Love,” “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock ‘n’ Roll),” “Museum Song,” “Jai Ho,” and “Limelight.” But perhaps one of the most memorable musical numbers of this kind in recent years is the one at the end of the raucous animal comedy The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Judd Apatow, 2006). In this final sequence, the multiracial cast members—who are clad in hippie-like headbands and tunics, and frolic with each other amidst rolling hills and colorful banners — treat us to a charismatic rendition of “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.”

This performance from The 40-Year-Old Virgin shares characteristics of most of the other closing credit numbers mentioned above: for instance, it draws on the actors’ own (poor or respectable) singing and dancing abilities; it is short, lasting no longer than 5 minutes; it portrays the cast as one big happy family; and it employs nondiegetic addresses (i.e., the participants look directly into the camera as they sing and dance). However, unlike the other numbers, Virgin‘s New-Age performance functions as a part of the diegesis; in other words, it is crucial to our appreciation of the film’s storyline and its overriding goal that 40-year-old Andy Stitzer (Steve Carell) will one day lose his virginity.1 Furthermore, because the closing number is integrated in this manner, it evokes several core conventions of the classical film musical, for example, the use of supradiegetic sound, a break in verisimilitude, and an emphasis on performance. But more noteworthy is that Virgin employs the classical film musical’s utopic sensibilities and its expression of sex and heterosexual romantic love through song and dance. Without a doubt, it is both ironic and perplexing that such a vulgar and overtly erotic film would resort to the refinement and apparent innocence of the classical film musical; but as this essay will suggest, perhaps the only way The 40-Year-Old Virgin could have aptly concluded its narrative is in this manner, through singing and dancing.

Merging the Real and Ideal: A Diegetic Spectacle and Other Classical Musical Conventions

During the long-anticipated last five minutes of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Andy Stitzer and his new wife, Trish (Catherine Keener), arrive at a hotel to consummate their marriage. The couple’s suite, however, is being cleaned — a final attempt to delay the film’s obvious goal. Even so, Andy informs us that he is ready to lose his virginity as he yells at the attendant, “Dude, get the fuck out of here!” In the next shot, as Andy and Trish kiss under the sheets, she asks him if he’s “ready.” “Yeah. Yes,” Andy replies. Then the image of the two slowly fades out, and the phrase 1 minute later is written across a black screen. Seconds later, the couple, now from a bird’s-eye perspective, fades in once more. Looking down and tracing the curve of her neck, Trish appears unsatisfied; Andy, however, looks at the ceiling completely in awe of his short sexual experience. “Wanna do it again?” Trish invites. The image fades to black for a second time, but now the phrase 2 hours later appears onscreen. And when we next see the couple, also from an overhead shot, they are visibly worn out, breathing heavily with their hair tousled. Finally, Trish speaks up once more, asking Andy, “So how was that for you?” His response is the medley “Age of Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” from the 1968 Broadway musical Hair.

After the music from “Age of Aquarius” fades in, Andy looks directly into the camera above and responds to Trish’s question by singing, “When the moon is in the seventh house/And Jupiter aligns with Mars/Then peace will guide the planets/And love will steer the stars.” Then, from the bedroom, the camera crosscuts outdoors where Andy, now dressed all in white, sings and dances in unison with the rest of the cast, which include not only Andy’s immature, woman-crazed coworkers — compulsive cheater Jay (Romany Malco), wannabe ladies’ man Cal (Seth Rogan), and lovesick puppy David (Paul Rudd) — but also other recognizable cast members such as Mooj (Gerry Bedknob), another tech-store coworker; Paula (Jane Lynch), Andy’s boss and aspirant “fuck buddy”; and the priest who marries the couple. Finally, this spectacle also exhibits pastel banners, beatnik attire, and uncomplicated choreography, the latter of which generally features Andy at the center.

Most of “Age of Aquarius” takes place in the grassy outdoors. If the number had retained this setting, it would function like all of the other closing credit sequences mentioned earlier. In other words, it would be nothing more than a delightful, toe-tapping addendum to the previous 120-minute narrative, something to make the viewer smile while exiting the theatre. But significantly, Virgin‘s closing number does not remain outdoors. Instead, throughout the song, the camera repeatedly crosscuts from the mountaintop setting to the bed on which Andy and Trish are recovering from their two-hour lovemaking session; and all the while the characters, whether in bed or in the open air, continue to belt “Age of Aquarius,” a musical explanation of Andy’s first sexual experience. To this end, the number is diegetic, an integral part of the narrative that is fundamental to the viewer’s appreciation of the film’s obvious goal for Andy Stitzer. Or as Rick Altman might put it, there is “a merging of the real and ideal” as Virgin‘s dramatic register shifts from narrative reality to musical spectacle (74).

This is just one way, however, that Virgin‘s final scene/closing-credit sequence conforms to conventions of the classical film musical. It also introduces supradiegetic sound, a device exclusive to the musical genre that reverses Hollywood’s standard image-over-sound hierarchy. Specifically, everything within the frame (the image) becomes subordinate to the music (sound).2 For example, when the song “Age of Aquarius” fades in, it immediately drives the actions, movements, etc. of every character in the frame, and it continues to do so until the end of the film. Two additional ways that Virgin‘s final scene conforms to conventions of the classical film musical are its obvious break in verisimilitude and its emphasis on performance. For instance, the characters directly address the camera as they perform, thus breaking the viewer’s semblance of “reality.” Moreover, like Fred Astaire and company in The Band Wagon (1950), who belt to the camera the memorable song “That’s Entertainment,” each cast member eagerly tries to entertain the spectator with his/her voice and dance moves, thereby calling attention to the spectacle at hand. But perhaps the most surprising conventions of the classical film musical that The 40-Year-Old Virgin employs are its utopic sensibilities and sexual signification.

A Utopian Sensibility and Sex on a Different Level:
Symbols of Spectacle in Classical Film Musicals and in Virgin’s Age of Love

Richard Dyer maintains that because the film musical is one of the purest forms of onscreen entertainment (i.e., its central objective is to provide pleasure), it consistently offers spectators a utopian sensibility. In other words, the musical — a genre that thrives on the audience’s enjoyment of the stars’ performances — is not concerned with how utopia would be organized but what it would feel like (177). Viewers may experience this via five elements: energy, abundance, intensity, transparency, and community. To illustrate Dyer’s point, we might consider Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952), a film with which many readers are likely familiar. For instance, the spectator experiences the musical’s utopic feeling of energy through the number “Moses Supposes” as Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) and Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) tap vigorously and forcefully in the office of a voice coach, indicating that the two could sing and dance forever. Similarly, the viewer senses abundance during the number “All I Do Is Dream of You” as the performers as well as those observing don extravagant clothing and meander around lavish sets. Third, the utopic feeling of intensity is emitted during the film’s most recognizable number, “Singin’ in the Rain,” as Lockwood directly and unabashedly expresses his newfound love for Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds). Furthermore, the utopic sense of transparency is evident in the number “You Are My Lucky Star” as Lockwood and Seldon publically affirm their relationship, one of quality and substance. Finally, audiences relish the utopic feeling of community while Lockwood, Cosmo, and Kathy perform “Good Morning,” dancing about Lockwood’s Beverly Hills mansion in perfect harmony and with a cooperative spirit.

Of Dyer’s five utopian sensibilities, three are arguably present in the closing-credit number of The 40-Year-Old-Virgin.3 For instance, the cast is full of life as they perform specifically for us (energy), Andy experiences his emotions directly and without holding back (intensity), and a sense of togetherness is expressed as the cast unites in song around the film’s hero (community). Therefore, like the numbers in Singin’ in the Rain, Virgins musical finale is “working at the level of sensibility,” offering the spectator a feeling of utopia as it were (Dyer 177). This is significant for two reasons. First, these utopic sensibilities mimic those from the classical Hollywood musical, which suggests that although the integrated, adult-oriented, feature-length musical is essentially dead, remnants of it survive in popular culture. Second, that “Age of Aquarius” presents what utopia would feel like is particularly important when we consider what else classical musical numbers often symbolize: sex.

 

Although the Production Code censored blatant onscreen references, sex and human sexuality surface in musical numbers throughout the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. This is certainly evident in the red lighting, fetishistic camera angles, swelling music, risqué dancing, and phallus-shaped waterfalls in the “Broadway Melody” number from Singin’ in the Rain and the dream sequence from An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951). Likewise, in The Pirate (Minnelli, 1948), the repressed sexual desires of Judy Garland’s character, Manuela, bubble to the surface during her uninhibited number “Mack the Black” in which she confesses her “big affinity” for a pirate’s “flaming train of masculinity.”4 But it is the romantic dances of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers that function as virtual guidebooks on the three stages of sexual intercourse — foreplay, climax, and resolution. Regarding climax in particular, we might look at Rogers’s performance in the passionate number “Cheek to Cheek” from the musical Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935). Specifically, Rogers concludes the romantic number with three dramatic backbends, each of which, in perfect rhythm to the swelling music, falls lower and lower with its repetition, insinuating both the feeling and the act of sexual climax.5 Similarly, The Gay Divorcee (Mark Sandrich, 1934), another Astaire-Rogers film, features a rather traditional visual response to sexual resolution when, at the end of the passionate number “Night and Day,” Astaire’s character offers a cigarette to the reclining and postcoital-looking character of Rogers. (Without any prompting, even my undergraduate students understand this seventy-year-old insinuation.) The Hays Code, of course, never completely removed sex from the film musical; rather, it was transferred to musical spectacle, or in Altman’s terms, “After 1934 sex appears on a different level—disguised, displaced, dislocated, but certainly not to be discounted” (169).

Released in 2006, obviously The 40-Year-Old Virgin does not have to disguise, displace, or dislocate sex in the same manner of classical Hollywood; yet strangely, it does. Like “Cheek to Cheek” and “Night and Day,” Virgin‘s “Age of Aquarius” signifies sexual intercourse, good sexual intercourse. Again, Andy’s sexual encounter occurs offscreen with elliptical editing revealing only the results of each attempt, the initial one that leaves Andy in awe and Trish unfulfilled, and the second that prompts Andy to elaborate ecstatically about his sexual experience via a song-and-dance number. To this end, “Age of Aquarius,” like the Astaire-Rogers dances, becomes the sexual encounter that is initially withheld from the spectator.

Nowhere Else It Could Go: Justification for Turning to the Classical Hollywood Musical

So why would a film such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin — which is not bound by the strictures of the Production Code and which is clearly uninterested in virtually all boundaries whatsoever — include such an antiquated depiction of sex as the one described above? There is a basic answer to this question, which Steve Carell addresses on the DVD commentary of the film: “There’s kind of nowhere else [the movie] could go,” Carell softly says as he and the cast comment on the closing musical number. In other words, this one-joke movie — anchored in representations of bodily fluids, sexual idiosyncrasies, racial stereotypes, homophobia, and the objectification of women — can stretch its lewdness no further, especially as it pertains to the deflowering of its sweetly and carefully constructed innocent lead character.6 There was, as the star says, just nothing else that could be done or shown.

While this is perhaps the most simplistic reason that “Age of Aquarius” is integrated into The 40-Year-Old Virgin, there are also formal reasons that there is really “nowhere else the film can go.” Comedian Gary Shandling, whom Apatow apparently sought for guidance on the film, explains it this way: “When the virgin has sex, it has to be better than everybody else’s sex and you have to show that somehow” (DVD). Indeed, in order for the audience to identify with and to care about Andy, his sexual encounter needs to be both nothing like and better than the countless other vulgar, immature, and misogynistic sexual references and innuendos throughout the film. In short, it needs to be the best sex Hollywood has to offer.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin has at least three options here: the couple could simulate the act of sex, the film could omit the sexual experience completely, or it could suggest a sexual encounter. Theoretically, the first two methods are formally and generically problematic, especially when paired with the notion that Andy’s sex should be “better than everybody else’s.” First, a simulated sex scene in this particular film would most likely result in lowbrow comedy. While images of Andy fumbling about, awkwardly fondling his partner, and getting himself tangled in sheets, for example, would follow the conventions of the animal-comedy genre (in that meaningful sexual activity is rarely featured), it would fail to elevate the love relationship that the film has tried so hard to establish as right, appropriate, superior. Similarly, if Apatow had attempted an honest representation of “the best sex ever,” the MPAA ratings board, which historically evaluates realistic representations of sex and nudity more harshly than comedic ones, would have likely given The 40-Year-Old Virgin an NC-17 rather than an R rating. That would mean no publicity, no wide release, no audiences, and no money.

The second option, omitting Andy’s first sexual experience altogether, would cruelly deny the viewer the film’s goal; not to mention, classical Hollywood narratives like this one rarely withhold such information from their audiences. We are left, therefore, with a third and rather conventional alternative: to have the couple signify a sexual encounter and/or the feeling of ecstasy. How might one do that? Perhaps through a montage similar to the love scene from Naked Gun 2½ (David Zucker, 1991): a train entering a tunnel, a rosebud opening, a derrick spewing oil. But there’s little sentiment in those images, only crude humor; and this 40-year-old virgin’s first sexual encounter requires more. Rather, one might turn to a genre whose entire purpose is to signify such utopic feelings and whose stylistic conventions indicate, rather than illustrate, exceptional sex and love. Indeed, perhaps the only way The 40-Year-Old Virgin could have represented the ultimate sexual experience and the indescribable feelings it evokes is by returning to a form in which emotion almost always trumps words.

Works Cited

Altman, Rick. The American Film Musical. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Benedikt, Allison. “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Chicago Tribune, August 19, 2005.

Chocano, Carina. “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Los Angeles Times, August 19, 2005.

Denby, David.”The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” The New Yorker, September 5, 2005.

Devlin, Ryan.”The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Premiere.com, August 19, 2005.

Dyer, Richard. “Entertainment and Utopia.” Genre: The Musical. Ed. Rick Altman. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 175-89.

Gleiberman, Owen. “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Entertainment Weekly, August 17, 2005.

“Tune Out.” Entertainment Weekly, September 9, 2005.

Rabin, Nathan. “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” The A.V. Club (The Onion), August 16, 2005.

Vannermann, Alan. “Fred and Ginger Hit Their Highest Peak in Top Hat.” Bright Lights Film Journal31 (Jan. 2001). http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/31/tophat1.php.

  1. To be fair, the number that Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellwegger perform at the end of Down with Love is a part of the narrative. It is introduced by an announcer within the film and cites the names of Zellwegger’s and McGregor’s characters: “Please give a warm welcome to the co-hosts of the new book Here’s to Love, Mrs. Barbara Novak Block and Mr. Catcher Block.” However, this musical number is not at all crucial to our understanding of the couple’s relationship or the narrative at hand; it is merely a cute addition to the movie that allows the stars to capitalize on their singing and dancing abilities, which were only recently on display in Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002) and Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann, 2001). []
  2. On this same note, supradiegetic sound creates, Altman claims, “a utopian space in which all singers and dancers achieve a unity unimaginable in the now superseded world of temporal, psychological causality” (69; italics mine). []
  3. As Dyer’s table suggests, one song can carry two or more utopic sensibilities (180-81). []
  4. This is certainly evident in Gene Kelly’s number “Niña” as well, which Altman points out, reveals Kelly-Serafin’s “wandering eye” and “indulgence in sexual overtures as a function of his role as entertainer” (190,193). []
  5. See Vanneman for a similar analysis. []
  6. Several film critics praise Apatow’s thoughtful characterization of Andy Stitzer and the film’s attention to detail, both of which allow us to see Andy not as a freakish caricature but, as Owen Gleiberman suggests, “a credible human being.” See, for example, Benedikt, Chocano, Denby, Devlin, Gleiberman, and Wilonsky. []