People see the name of this movie and get defensive. What's wrong with being a virgin? they ask.

Absolutely nothing, and that's part of the point of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, probably the most sweet-spirited sex comedy ever made. It's pretty funny, too.

Steve Carell, hilarious as clueless weatherman Brick Tamland in last year's Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, scores again in Virgin as ... well, the title pretty much says it all. But the movie isn't about one characterization, or even one character. There's humor in our hero's situation - 40, a virgin, and scared witless to admit it, especially to anyone female - and in the way his "situation" is viewed by everyone around him. The culture of sexual relationships, and the absurdities it engenders, is the real source of humor in this movie. That, and the pain of hair removal through waxing.

Carell is Andy Stitzer, a thriving stock clerk in an electronics store whose standoffish ways raise the suspicions of his co-workers; one is pretty sure he's a serial killer. But when a fifth player is needed for the big poker night, all hesitation is cast aside and Andy is invited to join the group.

That's when the guys in the store find out there's nothing dangerous about Andy; he just needs a little loosening up, the kind a little female companionship could best provide.

What follows is a series of hare-brained schemes involving nightclubs, paid sex, getting drunk, learning the language of love (never say anything that isn't a question, one of Andy's new friends advises, assuring him that women love that). None of that works, of course, especially since the real answer to Andy's "dilemma" owns the store across the street.

That would be Trish Piedmont (Catherine Keener, never more appealing), who runs a store that sells things for you on eBay. (One of the movie's best jokes involves a customer who refuses to understand that she can't sell him anything, only show him items he can bid on in an online auction, where eliminating the middleman is supposed to be one of the main attractions). She finds him approachable and adorable, which, as a middle-aged grandma with a 16-year-old malcontent living at home, is what she needs. He understands that connecting with a woman like her would be like hitting a grand slam in his first big-league at-bat - but can he work up the necessary nerve?

There's plenty of blue language and gross misbehavior in Virgin, enough to put many viewers off right away; the movie's not above resorting to the puerile. But Carell and director Judd Apatow (who wrote the script together) are way too smart to leave things at that. Carell, after all, has been a one-man comedic highlight reel for a couple years now (this movie should help him achieve the marquee status he deserves), while Apatow, a writer, director and producer of the dearly loved and much lamented TV series Freaks and Geeks, has shown an affinity for keeping his humor simultaneously juvenile and civilized.

Carell's Andy Stitzer is a marvelous comic invention, a grown man who never stopped being a boy - an obsessive toy collector (his proudest possession may be a rare doll of the Six-Million-Dollar Man's boss) who still rides his bike to work. To the movie's credit, Stitzer is someone to laugh at, but not deride. Yes, he's an oddball, but the movie finds him more endearing and, perhaps, puzzling, than mock-worthy.

Which is how his newfound friends see him, too. As sort of a Greek-chorus of well-intentioned knuckleheads, Paul Rudd, Romany Malco and Seth Rogen (another Freaks and Geeks alum) display an obvious affection for Andy, and not just because they look forward to seeing him deflowered. Maybe, they suspect, he's onto something; despite their self-professed knowledge and experience, none of them are doing much in the ladies department either.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin drags a good bit in the middle; about 20 minutes could have been trimmed without losing much. And there are times when Andy displays a self-confidence his character clearly doesn't have, moments where the script bows to an unfortunate insistence on inserting sure-fire laughs on a regular basis, whether or not the developing narrative warrants it.

But Virgin never fails to get back on track. Much like the Farrelly brothers' There's Something About Mary, Apatow and Carell find the humor in sexual frustration without endlessly exploiting it, adroitly walking the line between offensive and funny, rarely resorting to the former without ensuring it is firmly rooted in the latter.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin

Starring Steve Carell, Catherine Keener

Directed by Judd Apatow

Rated R (pervasive sexual content, language and some drug use)

Released by Universal

Time 116 minutes

SUN SCORE * * * 1/2 (3 1/2 STARS)

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