Love, predictably, conquers all-or almost all-in 40 Days and 40 Nights, the newest sex comedy in a long string of Hollywood sex comedies. Directed by the guy who made Heathers and written by first-timer Rob Perez, the film has a profoundly goofy premise: Soft-spoken Web-design whiz Matt (Josh Hartnett) swears off sex for Lent. The premise, of course, is just a premise, and this one could have made a profoundly dopey movie. But thanks to a good-natured script, sharp direction and immensely appealing lead performances, it turns out to be smart and genuinely funny.
Matt is recovering from a failed relationship by having one-night stands with a long string of willing partners, but he’s having ominous psychological problems. Specifically, he can’t perform in the sack because he imagines a crack forming in the ceiling of his bedroom that represents, oh, I don’t know, his sublimated-but-still-crumbling emotional state after a months-old break-up with a girlfriend. This subplot is eventually developed to extremes that demonstrate why 40 Days is at its best when it’s most simplistic. Nuance and deeper meaning are definitely not its forte.
Best understood as a parody on male sexual preoccupation (Matt forbids himself not just intercourse, but also masturbation), 40 Days takes place in a pastel-colored unreality where the dot-com bust never happened, where playful babes can be met at the local laundromat, and where your officemates are sexy as all get-out-and take weird, womanly pleasure in the challenge of seduction. And, you know, maybe they do if you look like Josh Hartnett. Women throw themselves at him here with a regularity not seen since Tom Cruise took his trip though dreamtime Manhattan in Eyes Wide Shut.
Shannyn Sossamon, such a zero in A Knight’s Tale, is treated much better here, radiating charisma that was kept in check throughout that thundering dud. She plays Erica, a bewitching young thing whom Matt encounters, darn it, just after he goes sexless. He handles their budding relationship fairly well, but is broadsided when he learns that his ne’er-do-well roommate has started a Web page documenting Matt’s sacrifice — and is taking bets on which of the 40 days involved will see him renege on the promise. You’d expect Erica to discover this and suspect Matt of deception, and so she does, blah de blah, but watching all the clichés unfold isn’t so painful. 40 Days maintains a capacity for surprise for most of its running time, skating breezily through its most perfunctory scenes, impatient to reach the next dick joke or to take Matt to the next level of sex withdrawal.
To wit: Toward the end of his 40-day stretch, Matt starts to hallucinate. Early on, he was merely tempted by girls in miniskirts and other revealing urban garb. But toward the end of the film, he’s just gaping, panic in his eyes, as the female citizens of San Francisco apparently order lattés in transparent blouses, stroll past him in their underwear, and finally board the Muni completely nude. A brief but surreal dream sequence illustrating Hartnett’s breast-obsessed state of mind is worthy of a Fellini film. He has the shakes. Hartnett plays this stuff like a junkie, and the juxtaposition of sexual imagery with his strung-out demeanor is the comic heart of the film. Finally, there’s a surprisingly disarming scene in which Matt breaks the spirit, but not the letter, of his vow, and the movie positively swoons under the power of a few well-placed flower petals.
The amiable unreality of all this is part of the deal. Sure, the world depicted here is an uncomplicated one where everyone — man and woman alike — is first and foremost a sexual being, and of course that kind of weltanshauung out in civilization will get you in trouble real fast. And I can see where devout Catholics might take offense. The film treats Lent as, essentially, a pretty goofy idea, and the delirium-fueled sexual climax riffs unexpectedly on The Last Temptation of Christ.
A close comparison can be drawn to American Pie, which was also about a bunch of kids groping their way through their first meaningful relationships with other human beings, but 40 Days and 40 Nights boasts more stylish filmmaking, even if it’s not so readily disarming. Though director Michael Lehmann never quite submits to the body-fluid crassness of Pie or There’s Something About Mary, he does craft lowbrow gags out of condoms, masturbation, and the sight of Matt’s raging boner, barely restrained by his clothing. If you don’t think a penis can be funny, you’re going to have issues with this film. (If, on the other hand, you ever wondered, “Whatever happened to Griffin Dunne, anyway?” — well, hey!)
The editing is occasionally choppy and the story episodic enough on the whole to suggest significant post-production tinkering may have taken place. Certainly the film derails in the final reels, with story threads tied up in perfunctory fashion or not resolved at all. Some critics have accused it of misogyny, which is both a loaded word and a difficult charge to rebut. Male sexual fantasies often objectify women, and 40 Days and 40 Nights qualifies as a fantasy, with a fetish for naked flesh and a stylized approach to human relationships that are invariably messier than their glossy Hollywood representations. But finally, I find the message simple, universal and pretty hard to argue with: love is better than sex, sex itself is pretty good, and the lack of either one can drive you crazy.