40 Days and 40 Nights
Screenplay : Rob Perez
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Josh Hartnett (Matt Sullivan), Shannyn Sossamon (Erica), Vinessa Shaw (Nicole), Adam Trese (John)
40 Days and 40 Nights offers a few things I don't think I have ever seen in a movie before, including a guy faking an orgasm (when accused by his sex partner of this, he tries to lie by saying, "I'm a guy! I don't think we can!"), a dream sequence in which an entire landscape is composed of rippling female breasts, and a surprisingly sexy sex scene in which the two people never touch each other. Actually, I have seen the last of those before, specifically in the effective and funny phone sex scene between Ben Chaplin and Janeane Garafolo in The Truth About Cats & Dogs (1996), which was also helmed by 40 Days and 40 Nights director Michael Lehmann.
Lehmann first grabbed attention when he directed the darkly comic teen satire Heathers in 1989, but his career since then has been uneven, although you can't really blame him since he's probably still recovering from 1991's Bruce Willis megaflop Hudson Hawk. Still, in 40 Days and 40 Nights, Lehmann proves he still has some jazz in him. Working from a script by first-timer Rob Perez, he refuses to let the movie sink into comfortable romantic-comedy rhythms, although he never brings it quite above its gimmicky premise.
The premise, as is probably well known by now, is that Matt Sullivan (Josh Hartnett), an amiable San Francisco web designer, decides to take Lent seriously for once and give up the one thing that has been controlling his life: sex. In one of those "only in the movies" situations, Matt is fed up that he's been having too much sex with too many gorgeous women. He knows that his flurry of one-night stands is partially self-inflicted denial that his long-time girlfriend, Nicole (Vinessa Shaw), dumped him, so he decides to gain control of himself by refusing to partake in any and all aspects of sexuality.
This set-up allows for all kinds of jokes about the hard wiring of the human male, from arguments about genetic programming that drive men to "spread their seed" (Matt's roommate warns him that, if he denies himself sex for 40 days, he's going to "piss off the seed!"), to simple declarations that all men's thought processes revolve around their genitals. Thus, Matt's choice of temporary celibacy becomes not only a personal endurance test of self-restraint, but an unwitting challenge to all the built-in assumptions about modern sexuality. His "vow," as it comes to be known, fascinates people so much that, behind his back, his coworkers set up an elaborate betting scheme using the Internet in which people wager money on which day they think Matt will finally crack and give in to temptation.
Of course, that's not the real problem. If anything, all the pressure from others only strengthens Matt's resolve. No, the real problem is that, within the first week of his vow, he meets the perfect woman in Erica (Shannyn Sossamon), with whom he immediately connects at the corner Laundromat. Naturally, his vow drives an immediate wedge between them in that they cannot turn their emotional connection into a physical one, and here the movie starts to get at a particularly pertinent question: Can a man and woman have a meaningful relationship without it becoming sexualized?
Despite the movie's premise, its answer is a resounding "no," as it builds to a climax (no pun intended) in which Erica will end Matt's vow at the stroke of midnight on the 40th night. But, can he last that long, especially when so many people around him are so unyielding in their temptations? (Most of these temptations come from those who have money at stake in the betting scheme and are thus all the more interested in seeing him not last the full time, although one of the first instances comes from a female co-worker who simply doesn't believe that a man can resist her, especially when she spreads her legs on a copy machine.)
40 Days and 40 Nights is one of the most openly sexual comedies to come out in some time. That is, it doesn't just use sex as joke material, but is about sex. Of course, since it is essentially a slightly more mature gross-out comedy, there's a certain callousness to parts of it, maybe because it puts into such clear relief how utterly and thoroughly sexualized our culture has become, to the point that it is now seen as bordering on pathology to not be obsessed with it. The ending of the movie is particularly vulgar, in a way that stands uncomfortably with the rest of the movie, as it requires a misunderstanding that hinges on what can only be described as rape, although no one ever addresses it as such.
There are amusing bits toward the end in which Matt seems to be coming apart at the seams from lack of sex, as is his boss (played by Griffin Dunne), who also takes a vow thinking it will make his wife want him more. Of course, this movie being the fantasy that it is, there is no shortage of incredibly beautiful women in tight tops and short skirts to provide temptation. Only in the movies do secretaries at a dotcom company have bodies like supermodels and wear two-inch skirts and fishnet hose. Suffice it say, if anyone in the real world decided to take Matt's vow, it might not be easy, but he wouldn't have to suffer through this much temptation.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick