How To Handle a Woman

Red Eye and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

“He’s cute. I hope he’s not a creepy stalker-type…”

Red Eye (DreamWorks), directed by Wes Craven, is a minimalist exercise in maximalist suspense. It’s mostly two people, the heroine and the bad guy, sitting next to each other on an airplane: tight close-ups, Hitchcockian subjective tracking shots up and down the aisles, and plenty of turbulence to rock the frame. And the movie takes off and lands in a trim 85 minutes: the perfect length, with no changing planes.

Super-cutie Rachel McAdams plays Lisa, a super-competent people-pleasing luxury hotel manager who’s flying home to Miami after her grandmother’s funeral. McAdams had to deal with Owen Wilson’s adorable subterfuge in Wedding Crashers, but it’s nothing compared to what she gets from Cillian Murphy as someone who calls himself Jack Rippner.

Murphy is the guy who battled viral zombies in 28 Days Later and put a gas-spewing bag over his head in Batman Begins. With his pallor, cut-glass cheekbones and glazed blue eyes, he’s right on the border between dreamboat and spooky freak. He and Lisa meet cute in the ticket line when he defends a harried agent from an impatient blowhard, cute again when they share Bay Breeze cocktails at the bar, and cute once more when it turns out he has the seat next to hers on the plane. He jokes that she’s stalking him. Heh-heh.

You won’t hear from me what happens next—only that the flatness of the setup is nicely creepy and that it gets even creepier once Rippner makes his intentions plain. I will say that a hawkish (but heroic) homeland security chief is in peril, and so is Lisa’s dad, played by Brian Cox—who has dropped some weight and, thanks to an odd brown thatch, some years.

There’s a theme here having to do with Lisa being too much of a super-competent people-pleaser to stand up for herself in a crisis. But this is the sort of thriller that really comes down to the teasing use of props and characters-as-props: a pen, a book, a friendly old lady, a curious little girl, a plane phone, a cell phone. On the edge of a people-mover, Craven serves up a low-angle shot that’s a masterpiece of composition, and there’s no loss of momentum in the more conventional climax. Yes, it’s the same old stalking-killer-with-a-knife bit. But this is Wes Craven, of Scream and Scream 2 and—oh yeah—Scream 3, and Wes knows from stalking-killer-with-a-knife scenes. He must have already used every “Boo!” setup imaginable, and he still comes up with a couple of new ones to make you jump. What a treat.

When Red Eye is all over you’ll probably look back—over steak tips and margaritas at the Applebee’s next door—and wonder just what made your stomach juices slosh around in your throat. And you’ll have another margarita.

Virginity optional

At this time in August, when many of us are too dazed and sunburned to jump through intellectual hoops, the next best thing to a terrific empty multiplex thriller is a terrific empty multiplex sex comedy. But if you want a good time with The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Universal), you’ll have to—in the words of another sex-crazed dork, Jon Lovitz—”Low-er your stan-dards.” Certainly the writer-director, Judd Apatow, and the writer-star, Steve Carell, have lowered theirs.

Apatow was a force on The Larry Sanders Show and Freaks and Geeks; Carell was a hoot on The Daily Show and even carried the ill-advised Americanization of The Office. But when brilliant TV-comedy guys do big-studio multiplex movies, they put on their stupid hats.

Carell is Andy, an everlasting adolescent who lives among vintage monster models and other geeky bric-a-brac. When he gets up to pee in the morning, there’s very visible evidence that (to quote the script) you don’t lose it if you don’t use it. Quite the reverse. But at home Andy lives in a world of private, audio-video fantasy, and he works in an audio-video superstore where no one pays much attention to him. Too bad Apatow makes so little of the private, audiovisual culture that feeds Andy’s masturbatory single life. There could have been a mini essay here on how easy it is to be a 40-year-old virgin when you have so many outlets for fantasy.

When his co-workers need a fifth for poker, they enlist this dull stockroom nerd and end up trading obnoxious and disgusting stories about their sex lives. That’s when all eyes turn to Andy, and, well, his description of the feel of a woman’s breast doesn’t quite have the ring of authenticity.

Carell’s jittery white-guy anti-hipness is amusing, but the character doesn’t track. First Andy is a half-bordering-on-quarter-wit who doesn’t even know how a condom works, and then he’s a savvy charmer. He could certainly contain multitudes, but it seems more likely that Carell (and Apatow) were too impatient (and proud?) to ring endless variations on his cretinousness or come up with yet more sadistic sight sags. (The requisite pain set piece here revolves around a hairy chest waxing and ejaculatory expletives.)

They also follow studio dictates and edge The 40-Year-Old Virgin into the realm of the corny and sincere. Catherine Keener shows up as a been-around-the-block mom who, for no discernible reason, instantly falls for Andy. This could be the movie’s can-you-top-this absurdity, but Keener is such a smart, grounded, and soulful actress that she makes you believe it. She even makes you believe that it wouldn’t be so bad to lose one’s virginity at 40 if you could lose it to her.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin is too long, too sexist, and too—shall we say—flaccid. But it has its moments. The big, bushy comic Seth Rogen * is hilariously matter-of-fact as he details assorted acts of sex and bestiality. And there’s a riotous sequence in which Andy’s buddies introduce him to a surefire conquest—an outrageous alcoholic played to the hilt by Leslie Mann (the wife of the director). She and Andy climb into her car for the ultimate Don’t Try This at Home, Kids drunk-driving scene. Even Cillian Murphy would abandon all hope with this babe.

Update: For mo’, better thoughts on The 40-Year-Old Virgin, click here.

* Correction, August 29, 2005: In an earlier version of this story, the name of the actor Seth Rogen was misspelled “Seth Rogan.”