NEW YORK - When film historians look back on the cinematic accomplishments of the early 21st century, they will likely point to 2011's Bridesmaids as a turning point in the fight for gender equality in raunchy comedy.
At the very least, Melissa McCarthy certainly deserves recognition as the Gloria Steinem of sink pooping.
But Bridesmaids is also noteworthy for boldly re-imagining the Hollywood heartthrob in the form of a generous, decent and lovably hangdog Irish traffic officer named Rhodes.
Not since the Village People sang YMCA has the workaday cop been so venerated as an object of desire.
Turns out, plenty of women would gladly pay a fine just to have actor Chris O'Dowd pull them over.
"I think 'swooning' would be too far an expression," says the droll 33-year-old native of the Emerald Isle, who will next be seen in The Sapphires, opening Friday. "They were 'swooing.' There was a lot of 'swooing' going on. Which was unusual for me. A lot of people were coming up and expressing their enthusiasm for the movie, which was really nice. The word 'cute' was used a lot. It was a very sweet character. I try to inform people that I am a big disappointment in real life."
Such humor-laced humility is to O'Dowd what spinach is to Popeye. It only magnifies his rough-hewn appeal.
His apparent one-man crusade to charm women on a global scale continues with The Sapphires, a high-spirited Aussie showbiz saga reminiscent of Dreamgirlsand The Commitments (with a pinch of Good Morning, Vietnam). It features the actor as an unorthodox though enthusiastic Motown-mad manager of an aboriginal girl group in the late '60s. The audience is introduced to his Dave Lovelace, an itinerant host of two-bit local talent shows, with the picturesque sight of him grouchily vacating the hatchback of his car wearing little more than his rumpled undies after sleeping off a hangover.
Not that the four ladies who make up the Sapphires found his character's failings unattractive. Just the opposite. "It's the 'I don't give a (bleep)' attitude," explains big-screen newcomer Shari Sebbens. "He's not worried about offending people. That is what a lot of great comics have. The intelligence and the attitude and the spunk to pull it off."
As for O'Dowd's growing reputation as a reluctant Romeo, Sebbens and her three co-stars can't help but laugh. "He might pretend he doesn't try hard," says Jessica Mauboy, a runner-up on Australian Idol. "But we know better."
His leading-man status will take another enviable leap as the star of Family Tree, an HBO mock-documentary series, created by Christopher Guest of Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show fame. It premieres May 12 for eight episodes.
Although Guest saw several other candidates for the role inspired by his own search for his roots, "I never considered anyone else," he says. "Chris is unusual in that he is incredibly funny, but there is also a very vulnerable side to him, which makes him appealing. I knew he was the right actor from the very first scene."
If that isn't enough, O'Dowd found time to provide the voice for Grub - sure to be in the running for the sexiest animated snail ever - in Epic, a fantasy-adventure from the makers of Ice Age that opens May 24. "I've seen some sexy snails in the garden," he assures. "They are sheltered, though. You will never see a snail orgy. Believe me, you won't. I've Googled it. You can't find it."
He has even managed to infiltrate the realm of comic-book heroes in this fall's Thor: The Dark World.
Filmmaker and producer Judd Apatow, who gave early breaks to Seth Rogen, James Franco and Steve Carell, has been a huge O'Dowd advocate after casting him in Bridesmaids, This Is 40 and a recurring role on HBO's Girls.
"He is someone you want to spend time with," Apatow says. "He reminded me of when I first saw Tom Hanks and Michael Keaton, and you wished you could be friends with them. He is fun and hilarious but has kind eyes. You feel like he would be there for you if you were in trouble."
Jokey self-abasement has been O'Dowd's first line of defense ever since he shot up to the awkward height of 6 foot at age 11 in the tiny burg of Boyle.
"I was an uncomfortable creature growing up," says the onetime Gaelic footballer, who now stands 6-foot-4. "When you are that tall that young, it's not like you are an athletic, striking individual. You look like you have grown up near Chernobyl. It's not pretty. It's bad posture and a lot of stooping."
But, he adds, "My mother always promised me I would grow into my face. And it's slowly kind of happening in my 30s."
As proof, the avid Twitter user - who has nearly 340,000 followers for his handle, @BigBoyler - has received more than a few proposals via social media. But instead of taking advantage of the situation, he instead chose to settle down and marry his girlfriend of three years, British TV celeb and journalist Dawn Porter, 34, in August.
He quickly learned that one should think before you tweet after announcing his newly wedded state with a cheesecake shot of his scantily clad bride and the braggy observation: "LOOK WHAT I GOT!!!"
He, of course, was forgiven.
"She's got a lot of living in her," O'Dowd says proudly. "She's a beautiful woman, and I'm very lucky. She's an immersive journalist. She did a series called "Extreme Wives." She became a geisha in Japan for a while. And then she went into a wife-buying ring in Russia."
Told that they might not have returned her, he says with a grin, "but unfortunately, they did, and I'm stuck with her. She always comes back, like a golden retriever."
The thing is, women don't just admire O'Dowd. They want to collaborate with him. Besides Wiig, they include Lena Dunham, the media-designated voice of her generation as creator and star of Girls.
After Dunham shared a standout scene with O'Dowd in last year's This Is 40,in which they played combative co-workers, she seemingly set out to test the limits of his gangly-goofy aura by casting him as Thomas-John, a loathsome, self-involved venture capitalist, for five episodes.
"No one else could have made that role palatable, charming and complex in the way Chris did," Dunham says.
O'Dowd accepts such demanding opportunities with long, open arms. "I like playing roles where the challenge is to make a character likable," he says. "You can only start off in a place where he has to have a lot of baggage. I have to be some kind of pain in the (butt) for it to be a challenge. Otherwise, it gets saccharine really quickly."
Not that O'Dowd is simply leaving the fate of his career in the hands of others. He is the creator of Moone Boy, an ongoing U.K.sitcom based on his own small-town childhood in the late '80s, and he shows up on-screen as the imaginary friend of his boyish counterpart.
The youngest of five, he attributes his keen understanding of the feminine mystique with having grown up with three sisters.
Did they boss him around?
"That would be a really kind way of putting it," he says. "They kicked the bejesus out of me."
Did he deserve it?
"Oh, for sure, yeah. But that is neither here nor there. It wasn't a justice situation. No, we were very close. We weren't the richest family in the world, and there were, like, three of us in the same room. I know how women work."
Does being such a wanted man bring happiness?
"No, as you can tell, I am pretty miserable. No, I'm so happy. It's been a really fun year, despite marrying a wench. I'm having a lovely time. I'm loving work. I have really well-sculpted calves, so I'm happy with my body."
So he works out?
"Nearly two, three times a year. I'll lift a table off my foot or off the dog's tail."
Will he ever go Hollywood and tidy up his looks with a little manscaping?
"I love the idea of getting manscaped, but I'm not sure what it is."
Told that it involves the torturous grooming ritual endured by Steve Carell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, he grimaces.
"I'm very proud of my back hair. That's what keeps me warm in the city."
Trailer: The Sapphires