This movie is not to be taken as a realistic depiction of how things are, but rather how the writers believe they ought to be, which Half-Sigma says is also true of Knocked Up by the same writer-director Judd Apatow. And while there are many enjoyable aspects of The 40 Year Old Virgin, including plenty of good sight gags, there remain several shortcomings that can all be traced to a naivete about the ability of middle-aged adults to significantly alter their personality traits.
Let's start with that. For a good overview, you should peruse Personality in Adulthood by leading researchers Robert McCrae and Paul Costa, who were instrumental in forming the Big Five model of personality traits. It is a very easy read for laymen, all key findings having been distilled into semi-stand-alone chapters of about 20 pages, and it currently sells for just over $5 used at Amazon. You can also search PubMed for the authors' names to find even more up-to-date abstracts. No matter what you read, though, the basic picture of personality after age 30 is that it is remarkably stable. There are tiny, incremental changes, though: as you age beyond 30, you become slightly more Agreeable and Conscientious, but less Extraverted, Neurotic, and Open to Experience. Importantly, your personality is not affected over the long-term by big life events such as getting married, having kids, getting fired, and so on -- although they may temporarily disrupt your basic disposition.
The skeptics may be wondering how that could be possible -- but the key is that it is true, whatever the causes, and the finding is the result of longitudinal studies spanning decades and examining large numbers of people, so it cannot be dismissed out of incredulity. Still, to make sense of this seemingly counter-intuitive result, think of how many irresponsible parents you've either met, heard of, or observed -- if becoming a parent caused you to become more Conscientious, there shouldn't be so many screw-up parents. If getting fired caused you to become permanently more Neurotic, how would people ever bounce back, even if it took several months or a year to do so? And conversely, if you became permanently less Neurotic from having secured a long-term job, wife, kids, and other events that we'd all think would make you less prone to negative emotions, then why do people who were Neurotic at age 30 remain so, despite achieving success?
Now, personality traits obviously change during life before 30, but since The 40 Year Old Virgin focuses almost exclusively on the lives of 30 and 40-somethings, the foregoing will be good enough to move on. We get a hint of the lack of realism when Andy (the title character) is encouraged to practice hitting on a girl by playing it smooth, turning every response of hers into a suggestive question. However, Andy is a meek, introverted nerd whose apartment is cluttered with action figures still in their boxes -- by age 40, it would be nearly impossible for him to turn on some switch inside his brain and effortlessly establish the playfully provocative banter that he does with this practice girl. It only appears seamless in the movie because Steve Carrell is a sufficiently flexible actor. This isn't a minor event in the movie either: it builds his courage, and the girl returns later on to offer him easy sex, forcing him to choose between a no-strings kinky hook-up with a skank vs. commitment to the woman he loves. In real life, the dilemma would never arise since he would have been hopelessly inept during his initial practice flirting with the girl.
Andy's meekness also presents a problem for the story arc that has him being promoted from a help desk assistant to the floor manager of an electronics store, due to his unexpected prowess as a salesman. This also boosts his self-confidence and makes him appear higher-status than he would be in real life. Note also that Steve Carrell is 5'8 or 5'9 -- this combined with a shy, ambitionless personality would prevent Andy from becoming manager of pretty much anything, let alone become a skilled salesman. I think the writers must have been aware of this contradiction, as even Andy's female boss is taller and has bigger balls than he does.
However, these two instances are failures at showing life as it is, and again the point is more to show how we ought to behave. Even there, though, the movie has two unbelievable events that also derive from the belief in the ability of middle-aged adults to easily and lastingly alter their temperament. One is a side-story about Andy's co-worker Jay, a profligate womanizer who feels no compunction in unannouncedly entangling Andy in his web of lies when he pressures Andy into lying on his behalf. Jay's irate girlfriend finds out that her boyfriend had gone speed-dating and written down a ranking of the girls' sluttiness (presumably to remind him in which order to call them), but Andy lies to her that the comments were his, not Jay's, which gets Jay off the hook.
Later, Jay forgets to take off the condom he'd used to fuck another woman the night before, and his girlfriend dumps him. He unwittingly impregnates his girlfriend, who then quickly decides to forgive him and take him back. Jay learns the lesson that sex complicates a relationship, that he should be devoted to his woman, and so on. He even appears enthusiastic about becoming a father, already bragging about how big his baby son's penis appears on a sonogram.
The idea that conceiving a child with an inveterate skirt-chaser will magically make him settle down and act responsibly is a joke, albeit one that manages to deceive many women into standing by their Lothario boyfriends. Remember, they're not a married couple coping with adultery; the boyfriend is just a letch. I'm not saying that change here is impossible -- we're not talking about a fundamental personality trait like Extraversion, but a more specific behavior like cheating on your girlfriend. Nevertheless, his girlfriend ought to remain very skeptical of how much her boyfriend has managed to change in just a few weeks' time, and she ought instead to require a long-term demonstration of sincerity and commitment before she accepts him back. The same would be true of any other mistreatment, such as if he'd smacked her around even once. By suggesting that women should go against their better judgment and quickly pardon the dishonorable behavior of their boyfriends, the movie misses the point in one of its "ought to" moments.
But worse still is the suggestion that Andy ought to seek out a relationship with Trisha (not the skank he used as flirtation practice). Throughout every stage of their relationship, Trisha reveals more and more red flags that should send shy guys looking for a decent woman running for the hills. First, she has three kids, one of whom also has a kid, and yet she has evidently been divorced for quite some time. She confesses that one of them was "a mistake," although as in Knocked Up she does not have an abortion; and she screams at her teenager daughter not to have sex and make the same mistakes she did when she was younger. When Andy tells Trisha that he rides a bike, she thinks he means a motorcycle and recounts how her boyfriend in college was a biker. And almost at the very start of their relationship, she admits that she usually does not go for nice decent guys like Andy, instead preferring bad boys -- and look where it's gotten her.
If Trisha were younger, we might believe that she'd seen the light and grown out of her wild youth, but the actress who plays her is 45 and looks it. If up through age 45 she's managed to spurn guys like Andy in favor of having unplanned kids by biker dudes who leave her afterwards, it's very unlikely that she'll be able to change her ways. It is like someone who has been an obese glutton all their life deciding to begin dieting in their mid-40s. Their natural inclination is to pig out on junk food, and they have had zero experience in exercising restraint, developing the positive habits of proper eating, and so on.
So how in the hell are they going to succeed in dieting for longer than a few weeks? What she would experience is misleadingly called "yo-yo dieting," when a better analogy would be a spring that's stretched away from its resting state but then soon snaps back to where it wants to be. Guys like Andy would be rice-cakes, and she would sooner or later dump them and return to her preferred bad boys. And in the meantime, unless he was too moronic to put two and two together, he'd realize that that's all he was to her -- a rice-cake that she had chosen not out of passion but as a last-ditch effort to protect her personal well-being. That's great for her, but it would humiliate any guy who had even a shred of dignity to be treated that way -- why not instead seek out a relationship with a woman who was enthusiastic about dating nice decent guys?
I already hear the laughs, but let's be serious: only someone with no self-respect would choose a long-term relationship with a semi-good-looking woman like Trisha, who viewed you as a dieting supplement to help her control her weight, rather than an average-looking girl who had fallen irrationally head-over-heels for you. True, Trisha would make a better casual sex partner, but remember that the movie presents her as the best choice for marriage. How could you wake up and look in the mirror every morning, knowing that your wife married you due to a mixture of self-interest and pity?
Besides, it's not true that there are few women who value virginity in a husband -- well, few in most of the developed West, that's true. But David Buss' seminal cross-cultural survey of mating preferences (PDF) showed that, far more than any other variable, a preference for virginity varied the most. Subjects rated their preference for a variety of factors that an ideal mate would have, from 0 (irrelevant) to 3 (indispensable). His Table 6 (p.11) shows that women in the following countries rated virginity as 2 or greater on this scale: China, India, Iran, and Taiwan, with the Indonesian average slightly below at 1.98 and the Irish average a bit lower at 1.47, though still far higher than most other places around the world. My first pick would be Indian and Persian girls, but if you prefer East Asians, then China, Taiwan, and Indonesia offer over 1 billion to choose from. And for those who prefer Europeans, the Irish produce plenty of stunners to select from (the darker ones anyway).
It's worth repeating that this variable varied more than any other -- despite variation around the world, men were pretty uniform in valuing "good looks" highly, and women "good financial prospect." So if you're an ugly girl or an unemployed guy, it's going to be rough finding a mate of any quality no matter where you look. But since there is such great variation in emphasis on virginity, it wouldn't be difficult at all for Andy to find an attractive bride from one of the aforementioned countries.
This more fitting and realistic alteration of the story could take the form of either him importing a mail-order bride from China or Taiwan, or to make him more dignified perhaps a wife from the more developed Ireland. Or, given the prominence of Andy's two South Asian male co-workers in the story, they could have fixed him up with a family member or family friend from South Asia. (There is a South Asian female who plays the ex-girlfriend of another co-worker, but she comes off as too prickly and self-centered to get along with Andy.) And of course, the story could have simply introduced an American woman who would have been magnetically attracted to Andy, even if she would represent only a minority of American women.
That suggests that The 40 Year Old Virgin is not so much about Andy and his difficulty getting laid, as it is about women like Trisha who have a past they're not proud of and are trying to better themselves by giving guys like Andy a shot, hopefully resulting in a steady marriage for once in their lives. It's hard to think of another reason why a woman with so many red flags was written as the one who falls for him. For, the best instruction to guys like Andy would be that, "You ought to look for a traditional, conservative woman who will already value what you are." The movie instead targets its instructions toward women like Trisha, to the effect that, "You ought to settle down with a guy like Andy while there's still a sliver of an opportunity for you to change your directionless ways."
That's all well and good, but again, it's pretty hard to swallow given how old and how much baggage Trisha has. It would have been more convincing if, as in Knocked Up, the female lead had been in her mid-20s (and the male lead suitably younger as well). It would have been more believable because basic personality traits are still somewhat up for grabs before 30, it would fit in easily with a storyline about her growing into an adult after partying hard in college, and the most important audience to reach -- young women -- would more easily relate to a female who was in her mid-20s rather than her mid-40s. Maybe Dawn Eden, author of The Thrill of the Chaste, or Wendy Shalit, author of A Return to Modesty and Girls Gone Mild, would feel up to the task of writing an improved script.