March 1, 2002

Movie Review: 40 days and all the sexual repression you can handle

40 Days and 40 Nights

Directed by Michael Lehmann

94 min., Rated R

On the press pass for the screening of this film, it said that 40 Days and 40 Nights was "America's first no sex comedy." If that's the case, then what was Josh Hartnett doing with some lissome brunette not 10 minutes into the movie, playing pinochle? If I may indulge my crankiness a bit further, there have been many American comedies that held great sway over audiences because of their ability to be excruciatingly oblique about sex. Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve comes to mind, as well as a few Cary Grant classics like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday.

But I guess I'd better stop my whining about some press outlet's historical myopia now, and deal with the film at hand. 40 Days and 40 Nights actually is, I guess, a "no-sex" comedy — its premise is that the hero will try not to have sex — as opposed to a sex comedy, the like of which we just don't see any more (I think it says a lot that even Neil Simon plays now seem to be considered too risqué to risk a movie budget on). Matt, the not-so-feckless hero of 40 Days, played by Josh Hartnett, has virtually no problem meeting women; in fact, they seem to drop into his lap. What he does have a problem with is getting over his ex-girlfriend, Nicole, and he thinks that his inability to move on is causing him to have terrifying hallucinations whenever he is in the arms of other women. Myself, I thought the hallucinations just symbolized the empty, shallow guy that Matt is supposed to be (more on that later), but I guess that's where the two of us differ.

Matt goes to his older brother for advice, but his brother is training to be a priest, so he isn't much help. However, on his way out of the church, Matt meets a full-fledged priest who is able to help Matt because, as a full-fledged priest, he naturally knows what celibates and moviemakers everywhere know: "food is equivalent to sex." You see, in the ultimate gesture of sacrifice, the priest has given up chocolate cookies for Lent, so Matt, inspired by the priest's example, decides to give up sex for Lent. What an idea! Not only will he become spiritually fulfilled, but, he surmises, he will also forget about Nicole. Matt and I differ on that point as well, but I won't belabor it: the conjectural leap he makes at that point is obvious enough. Matt plainly is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, even though he does work for a dot-com (which actually makes a lot of sense, if you think about it).

So, having gotten himself into what we are supposed to believe was the single greatest dilemma a guy these days could get himself into, Matt promptly meets the woman of his dreams. I was sorry that somebody in the movie didn't interrupt the action and make the obvious point that meeting this woman was the thing that would really help him forget his ex-girlfriend, but by that time Matt had started to enjoy using his time more wisely (he used to spend every waking hour thinking about sex, of all things). And, of course, his vow had become a sacred trust, as well as the object of the hottest gambling ring on the Internet, run out of his own office. It seems that the guys in his office couldn't help putting some money down because the only thing they think about is gambling. All the time. But they're supposed to think about sex all the time. Which is a paradox, which could destroy the universe

Sorry, distracted by The Time Machine. Where was I? Ah, yes, poor Matt's dilemma. The woman of his dreams is…so close…and yet…he can't kiss her, can't hold her, can't touch her at all. (Again, won't someone remind this poor sap why he took that Lenten vow in the first place?) Yet, because he is such a sensitive, great guy, they have a great time together anyway, fall in love, and end up having one of the most erotic love scenes to come out of Hollywood in decades.

Whoops, did I just say that Matt is a sensitive, great guy? The same Matt who is supposed to be so shallow, who only ever has one night stands and never has any satisfying relationships, and whose own brother says that depth and character are definitely not his strong suits? Yep, same guy. Yes, Houston, we do have a problem. Writer Rob Perez, whose script suggests that Matt is some Night at the Roxbury lothario, must not have spoken with director Michael Lehmann, who entirely avoids any scene, or even any shot, where Matt is any less than the perfect guy. He always well spoken, polite, thoughtful; hell, he's been stuck on his old girlfriend for six months! The guy's excessively sensitive. It doesn't help that every other guy in the film is the picture of satiric sleaze, either; they make Matt look like Jimmy Stewart, or, well, Tom Hanks even.

Still, the incongruity of Matt's character doesn't hinder the love story, which does make this movie one of the better romantic comedies in recent years. I know that's not saying much, but hey, even Meg Ryan is getting shrill these days, so any port in a storm, right? However, I do wish that the filmmakers hadn't decided to go for shock value in the film's third act, when all of a sudden, right after the very tender love scene, Josh Hartnett's passion is literally thrust at us. I don't know why Lehmann and Perez decided to throw a bone to the Freudians in the audience, but I don't think that added much to my viewing pleasure. Even worse, someone had the bright idea to demonstrate Matt's sexual desperation near the end of the 40 days by using bizarre scenes of female nudity that were somewhere between Dali and Terry Gilliam. They didn't work for me, and based on the patronizing giggles I heard all around me, I don't think they really worked for anyone else either.

I feel the urge to forgive these transgressions and heartily applaud 40 Days and 40 Nights for its "bravery" in showing what I thought was a realistic and beautiful relationship blossoming between two real people. I hesitate to give that applause, however, because I can't shake the feeling that as wonderfully appealing as that love story was, it was in the wrong movie! It just didn't make sense; I was not convinced that Matt could have the problems he was having, need to take the vow he takes, and be a "dream guy" at the same time. Add to that an insipid and unoriginal take on contemporary Catholicism (yeah, yeah, priests are repressed — not even Catholics pretend they don't know that anymore) and the surreal fields of disembodied breasts that Matt flies over in one of his delusions, and my memories of 40 Days and 40 Nights are less than scintillating.

My advice to the two leads, Hartnett and Shannyn Sossamon, is this: you have good instincts. You left Pearl Harbor and A Knight's Tale behind to make a movie that had more than just a 14-year-old's idea of love, and you made your scenes together click. Really. And I mean that. BUT, next time, take a good long look at the scripts you're considering, and if you see the words "rows upon rows of pulsating breasts," it had better be The Dallas Cowgirls Story, or at the very least, Showgirls II. Otherwise, leave the project for Freddie Prinze Jr. and Rachael Leigh Cook. Their fans think you're them, anyway.