All good teams need good players on the bench. Given that Will Ferrell, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn - founder members of American comedy's Frat Pack - have all fumbled the ball recently (with the likes of Kicking & Screaming and Wedding Crashers), perhaps it's best they now send on a fresh pair of legs: enter Steve Carell, previously best known as the boss in the underrated U.S. version of The Office, and as The Daily Show's inept grocery expert Produce Pete. In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, his first starring role, Carell plays Andy, a middle-aged loner whose nights are spent watching reality television and painting his action figures. When his colleagues at the electronics showroom at which he works discover a particular lack in what passes for his life, they resolve to find him some serious loving; trouble is, Andy's already smitten with Trish (Catherine Keener), the woman across the way in the shop that doesn't sell anything.
It seems we now have to accept that sketchy is the default setting for American comedy - it's no surprise its most prominent practitioners have emerged from stints on Saturday Night Live. Increasingly, these films' success depends on what binds those sketches together, or the laughs that help us overlook the fact. Written and directed by TV comedy veteran Judd Apatow (The Simpsons, The Larry Sanders Show), The 40-Year-Old Virgin shares the underlying, connecting conceit of the later American Pie films, throwing different ideas of masculinity up against one another; particularly, in this instance, men who've been screwed up in some way by either the absence or presence of relationships in a world where "everything is about sex". The surface is certainly sketchy, but then these are better-than-average sketches: Andy and his colleagues smashing fluorescent tubing for no reason other than it's there; masturbation scored to Lionel Richie's "Hello"; Paul Rudd's David threatening to blow his brains out if the Michael McDonald DVD isn't taken off the in-store TVs ("I'm all Ya Mo B There'd out").
The incessant riffing and joshing Apatow fosters yields some very funny lines (on being asked about sexual protection, Andy's response is a shrugging "I don't have guns"), while the sparkling ensemble cast, who've possibly been assembled against the risk of a dud leading man - Rudd, Romany Malco and Seth Rogen as Andy's colleagues, indie princesses Keener, Jane Lynch and Elizabeth Banks as very different kinds of women - turns out to be all bonus. It's as tender as it is crude, and Carell does indelible character work, as heartbreaking in his own way as he is funny. Putting a vulnerable boy-man at the centre of the film, rather than an incorrigible adolescent or inveterate party monster like Vaughn or Wilson (who never seem to change much) allows the Frat Pack to venture into uncharted territory: for the first time, we witness one of their comic creations becoming a little wiser by the end credits, in a film that insists it's never too late to learn.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin screens on ITV1 tonight at 10.35pm.