These days it's rare to see one great studio comedy a year, so to see two within the span of a month is almost miraculous. The 40-Year-Old Virgin arrives in theatres on the heels of Wedding Crashers, and in some ways it's even better than that very funny box-office smash. Both movies seek to combine '80s-style R-rated raunch with a 21st-century emo-boy sensitivity. The results shouldn't work, but they do thanks to savvy screenplays and terrific ensemble casts.

What ultimately puts The 40-Year-Old Virgin on top is the presence of Steve Carell, who gives a star-making performance as the title character, a geeky, sexually challenged retail slave named Andy. Carell has been stealing scenes for several years now as a correspondent on "The Daily Show" and a bit player in such movies as Bruce Almighty and Anchorman. Like Will Ferrell, his strength as a comedian is his unpredictability-you're never quite sure what he's going to do or say next. But he has more self-control than Ferrell, who all too often crosses the line from funny to obnoxious. It would have been very easy for Carell and Virgin director Judd Apatow to turn Andy into an exaggerated caricature, a wide-eyed naïf who is repeatedly humiliated by the cool kids for the entire movie. And while the script (co-written by Carell and Apatow) does place Andy in several embarrassing situations, he's never an object of pity. He's just a sweet, funny and completely ordinary for a few odd personality quirks.

In fact, almost all of the characters in this movie are ordinary people, including Andy's horny buddies (played by Paul Rudd, Romany Malco and Seth Rogen), who, after learning of his sexual inexperience, make it their mission to get him some lovin'. Underneath all their macho posturing, however, are three nice guys who want to help a friend-even if their counsel often complicates matters. It's based on their advice, for example, that Andy initially avoids asking out Trish (a delightful Catherine Keener), the kooky knockout who works across the street. Instead he is lured into a series of disastrous dating experiments, none of which ends with him in the sack. Eventually he decides to take matters into his own hands and invites Trish out for dinner. They hit it off right away and romance blossoms, but Andy finds himself unable to tell her about his sexual history (or lack thereof). The raunchy high-jinks that dominate the first half fade away and the movie becomes much more about the way secrets can sabotage a perfectly good relationship.

At almost two hours, The 40-Year-Old Virgin is a tad overlong, but it never wears out its welcome. The movie is consistently hilarious; at the screening I attended, the laughter started about 30 seconds in and continued right up until the credits rolled. The actors play off one another with grace and charm, and in his first time behind a movie camera, Apatow (who created such gone-too-soon television shows as "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared") manages to retain the same relaxed comic rhythm and deep empathy for his characters that made his TV work so distinctive. But in the end, the movie belongs to Carell, who takes a one-joke role and turns him into a three-dimensional human being. That's something even Will Ferrell hasn't managed to accomplish yet.
-Ethan Alter