Last Days (15) <br></br> The 40-Year-Old Virgin (15)

Smells like no spirit
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The Independent Culture

Michael Pitt plays Blake, a dishevelled rock star who's become increasingly withdrawn from the world. We first see him wandering through the woods, mumbling to himself and serenading a camp-fire with a few bars of "Home on the Range". This is about as carefree as he gets. On returning to his dilapidated mansion he makes breakfast (Cocoa Krispies), ignores the telephone and tries to avoid the coterie of hangers-on who drift around the house. There is no scene (and no mention) of him taking drugs, though on the evidence of his unsteady gait and near-catatonic mood it's probably safe to assume that his brain got fried some time back. The ambient noise on the soundtrack - running water, church bells, distant traffic - could be the hell going on inside his head.

Now, I don't mind art that sets big challenges of interpretation, and sometimes can positively enjoy it. This is different. Sorry to have to ask, but where exactly is the movie here? Surely it can't be this disjointed sequence of epically long takes and slurred, desultory talk, can it? Van Sant explains in the press notes how he dispensed with character analysis and instead put the viewer on the spot: "The psychology is really in the mind of the viewer; it's not being delivered to you as a thesis, as something that you're told from the screen." So what actually is being delivered? Filmed mostly in long shot, with a curtain of dirty blond hair shielding his face, Blake is virtually impossible to read; he keeps up a constant muttering soliloquy with himself, but from the little that can be deciphered you know it's not Hamlet. Towards the end he performs, alone, an acoustic number, which inclined me to wonder: is he depressed because he's not a very good songwriter?

Only once does the film spring to life, when a Yellow Pages ad-salesman calls at the house, sits down with Blake and proceeds to make his sales pitch. It isn't so much that he loses Blake with his first question - "How's your day so far?" - but that the latter receives him wearing a black negligee and monkey boots that lends the scene its giddy, comical air of unreality. Incidentally, the salesman, played by Thadeus A Thomas, manages to keep a straight face during the interview, which may be down to the fact that he is not an actor at all but a Yellow Pages employee Van Sant happened upon in New York; one gets the impression he meets guys like Blake all the time. What enlightenment Last Days will offer to anyone I couldn't say. Students of the wordless, 10-minute-long scene may get a kick out of it; Cobain fans may wish to satisfy their curiosity as to how their hero's reputation is being looked after; anyone else will ask why this bedraggled, unremarkable recluse should warrant their time, let alone their compassion.

Andy Stitzer, on the other hand, titular hero of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, is eminently deserving of both. Andy, a shy, decent and only mildly uptight fellow, lives alone and works at an electronics store, where he's already regarded as a bit of a weirdo for riding a bicycle - this is LA, after all. Then a trio of co-workers invite him to their evening poker game and, having rumbled Andy's humiliating secret, set about helping him to pop his cherry. It's as simple as that, though what might have been hopelessly crass in another's hands (eg Adam Sandler's) is transformed into a sweet and occasionally uproarious comedy of innocence.

Much of its charm can be credited to Steve Carell as Andy, his carefully parted hair and nervous glance the outward sign that he's not quite entered the world of adulthood. That, and the hundreds of mint-condition action figures he keeps in his bedroom. His tentative romance with indie queen Catherine Keener is at first touching and, once inside the bedroom, desperately funny. "Do you have protection?" she asks him. "I don't have guns," he replies, lost. Director Judd Apatow is making his feature debut, but given his background as writer and producer on the incomparable Larry Sanders Show, he has a head-start; the script, which he co-wrote with Carell, fizzes with some terrific serve-and-returns, many of them delivered by Seth Rogen as Andy's dating mentor, Cal. "When should I call her?" Andy asks him. "Hmm. When's the next Olympics?"

Some of the sight gags, such as the early-morning erection, are extended too far (as it were), and the chest-waxing torture scene is also overplayed. But the supporting cast, especially Keener, Rogen and Seth Malco, are so wonderfully game, and the cultural references so endearingly left-field (Steve Austin's boss? Michael Macdonald? David Caruso in Jade?) that you'd forgive it much else besides. I haven't laughed as hard at a movie since Dodgeball, and after a month of duds like the one we've just had, that's something to give tearful thanks for.