The Forty-Year-Old Virgin Four stars
Here's the premise: our heroine sheds a single tear as she leaves her cruel stepmother to become the "number four wife" of a rich man she's never met. From then (five minutes into the film) onward, her world is contained within the ever-present walls and dominated by her rivalry with the more senior wives and her (self-imposed) need to assert her position against a servant girl who also lays claim to the Master's capricious affections. Alliances form and shift, and eventually secrets will be revealed and blood spilt. It's not fair to say that nothing happens in this film, it's just that by the time it does, the audience is long past caring.
American audiences will probably be shocked to witness the extreme formality and total lack of privacy with which even a simple meal is carried out. The static wide-angle camera work is effective in these scenes, allowing us to watch both the calculated cruelty of the wives and the studied impassivity of the servants. In some of these indoor scenes the film almost becomes interesting. It's when trying to portray the inner lives of the characters that the film loses its way, always choosing the most heavy-handed approach possible.
What moves this film out of the category of the merely slow-moving, female-centered, and "arty", and into the category of the truly unbearable, is the fact that one of the wives is a former opera singer. Much of the second half of the film is devoted to endless shots of her singing on the rooftops and in the courtyards (as if we hadn't seen enough of these). Her caterwauling, which sounds as if recorded in a bathtub, is probably being studied by the CIA for use in whatever secret base they are setting up to replace Guantanamo Bay. I am certain that it caused several deaths by trampling as theater audiences rushed for the exits.
The ending (which I regret waiting for) is entirely predictable, and should have been equally predictable to all the characters involved in the climactic events. The film, as tradition-bound as its subjects, plods along as as woodenly as the actors, travelling in a time-worn rut. Even when the grim end is finally in sight, the remaining journey is so drawn-out and painful that the critic's last satisfaction -saying "I told you so"- no longer seems worth the effort.
The secret to the Forty-Year-Old Virgin lies in the constant bickering, fighting, and teasing among the ensemble cast. It's hard to describe, but it's as daringly funny as Richard Pryor or Eddy Murphy used to be. (It's worth noting that I watched the "unrated" version on DVD. Some of the best stuff may not have been shown in the theater.)
Any movie that can still get laughs out of a speed-dating scene is worthy of being considered a masterpiece. So if you haven't seen it yet, do so.
PS The movie doesn't entirely end at the sappy ending; there's an absurd and wonderful sequence that ushers in the credits.