- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 25, 2005

A culture-war truce of sorts has been reached at the movies this summer between the forces of virtue and raunch. In a season of calculated naughtiness, as signified by a profusion of movies with the ever-elastic PG-13 rating, two decidedly racy, R-rated comedies have distinguished themselves by a surprise concomitant element — decency.

Robust box office numbers hint that you’ve already seen “Wedding Crashers,” the summer’s breakout hit. Starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson as a pair of cads who, despite themselves, discover the pleasures of monogamy and, indeed, marriage, “Crashers” has earned $178 million domestically and another $30.6 million overseas.

What begins as a frenzied and cynical quest for pliant flesh at all manner of ethnic wedding receptions soon shifts gears and becomes a grown-up reappraisal of thirtysomething manhood. Mr. Wilson’s character sees lonely middle age on the horizon, and doesn’t like the view.

“We’re not that young,” he confesses blearily to Mr. Vaughn, who is still tippling a bottle of bubbly at dawn on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, after a night of wedding-reception revelry and mass cake consumption.

Later, Mr. Wilson genuinely falls for one of his “marks,” played by Rachel McAdams, at a Washington society wedding. He’s attracted by her beauty but also by inner qualities such as maturity, wittiness, verve and idealism. “I just want you to know, you deserve someone great,” he tells her in one of the movie’s sappier, yet unquestionably heartfelt, moments.

Mr. Vaughn, meanwhile, convinces a nymphomaniac to forsake anonymous Brazilian sex partners and other exotica, and join him at the altar. Not exactly the stuff of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, but, in the context of “Crashers,” it works just fine. And while it flaunts a secret-society code of “wedding crasher” ethics, the movie is also a good-natured celebration of male friendship and loyalty.

Moviegoers counterintuitively found the same virtues last weekend in “The 40 Year-Old Virgin,” a riotous farce starring comedian Steve Carell as the lonely title character, who, egged on by his carnally-infatuated work mates at an electronics store, decides to give mate-seeking another whirl.

But what could easily have turned into a carnival of seduction and regressive skirt-chasing turns out, in the end, to be a vindication of marital exclusivity.

Mr. Carell’s middle-aged virgin — skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t seen the movie — does not rid himself of his virginity in some squalid, late-night encounter, as might have occurred had the movie hewed to the “American Pie” (by way of “Porky’s”) vision of instrumental sex. He saves it for the marriage bed.

Unsurprisingly, given the remarkable success of “Wedding Crashers,” “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” opened at the top of the box office last weekend, taking in $20.6 million and surpassing industry expectations.

What’s going on here?

In a word, women. Or: How Hollywood learned to market raunchy comedies to women.

This may come across as a crude generalization — or, worse, as patronizing — but I think women are more conservative than men in their movie habits for the same reasons they are less conservative in their voting habits. Those reasons are a desire for security; responsiveness to portrayals of compassion; and an aversion toward cruelty or the appearance thereof.

Is it any wonder “Wedding Crashers” has found a broad audience and sustained a six-week presence in the box office Top 5, while “The Dukes of Hazzard,” with its titillating promise of television naivete turned 21st-century sleaze (not to mention the chance to ogle Jessica Simpson in short shorts), is close to tumbling out of the Top 10 after half as many weeks in release?

A recent report in USA Today teased out the telltale data. According to Universal Pictures, women composed fully 54 percent of the audience for “The 40 Year-Old Virgin”; women have also been the majority audience for “Wedding Crashers,” which is being distributed by New Line Cinema, the report said.

“There’s a sweetness to it that women are responding to,” Universal’s Nikki Rocco told the newspaper, referring to “Virgin” and its marketing campaign. “You feel for the characters, who are all basically good guys.”

Bingo. Nice guys may finish last in real life — but that’s not the story women want to see on screen.

Is our culture-war truce, then, not really a truce at all? Is it, rather, just a clever marketing ploy to make R-rated comedies more palatable? Yes: Of course it’s a marketing ploy; movies are consumer products.

Indeed, the Los Angeles Times reported this week that “Virgin” director and co-writer Judd Apatow trimmed back scenes depicting Mr. Carell’s character encountering a transvestite, as well as a scene in which he’s forced to watch porn movies. Mr. Carell said, “It was way too graphic. It pulled people out of the movie.”

How much do you want to bet those “people” had two X chromosomes?

Still, what’s instructive here is that there’s clearly an appetite for what might be called post-obscenity raunch — the kind of raunch that, while graphic in its language and its literal depiction of sexuality, is ultimately tethered to the same lessons of respectability and honor that characterized the prim pillow comedies of the 1950s and ‘60s.

What “Wedding Crashers” and “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” have demonstrated is that we don’t need a Production Code to maintain a moral code.

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