`40 Days' won't leave you wanting more

Review: The premise has promise, but that promise gets squandered.

March 01, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Few movies would have the temerity to compare 40 days of sexual abstinence with the 40 days Christ spent in the desert resisting the devil. So give 40 Days and 40 Nights credit for audacity, if not for much else.

Director Michael Lehmann (The Truth About Cats and Dogs) and first-time screenwriter Robert Perez keep threatening to come up with something original and funny with this tale of a guy who decides the best way to recover from a hopeless infatuation is to abstain from sex for 40 days.

The main character's moment of clarity, in which he sees himself as a victim of a sex-obsessed society and realizes the only way to rise above it is to resist its pleasures, at least shows evidence of thinking that originates somewhere above the body's nether regions. Some of his attempts to remain chaste are genuinely funny. And in the lead role, Josh Hartnett is never less than likable.

But too often, the film stops trying to be funny and settles simply for crass. The religious theme turns out to be merely an excuse to take an easy potshot at Catholic priests' vow of celibacy. And the ending makes sense only because the 40 days are up. As for plot and characters ... hey, who cares about them at this point?

Matt Sullivan (Hartnett) is struggling to get over the beautiful and saucy Nicole (Vinessa Shaw), who grew tired of his insistence on videotaping her all the time. (This obsession seems as though it should have some relevance to the rest of the movie, but it doesn't.) His friends are no help; the only person he can really talk to is his brother, John (Adam Terse), a Catholic seminarian months away from becoming a priest.

As with almost everything else in this movie, their relationship starts off promising, as each brother tries to understand puzzling aspects of the other's personality.

But soon, their encounters deteriorate into a series of crude jokes and embarrassed looks.

Then a light bulb goes off in Matt's head - to break Nicole's grip, he has to take away her power. And that means making sex a non-issue; he decides that even self-gratification would be a sign of weakness.

(All this happens as Lent is approaching, a 40-day period during which Christians traditionally do without something they hold dear, to commemorate Christ's time in the desert.)

Of course, this isn't going to be easy. And that's true even before Matt meets Erica (Shannyn Sossamon) at the Laundromat one night and almost immediately falls for her. She's lovely and forward and a bit of a rebel; you can tell because of the myriad ways she wears her hair. And because Matt doesn't immediately want to have sex with her (she doesn't know about the vow yet), she wants him. For only the best reasons, of course.

40 Days and 40 Nights tries to set up lots of roadblocks for Matt and Erica, but none of them make much sense. Why doesn't Matt tell her about his vow, instead of hiding it from her? For that matter, why doesn't he forget about it altogether? If its raison d'etre was to get over Nicole, meeting Erica would have accomplished that. The movie tries to sell the idea that Matt is on something akin to a spiritual quest but never backs that up with anything beyond lip service.

Besides, Matt seems to break the vow, at least in spirit, from the minute Erica shows up. Their non-relationship-relationship culminates one evening when Matt and Erica use an orchid in ways the horticultural society never imagined. If that doesn't constitute sex, we all need to rethink our definitions.

Griffin Dunne shows up as Matt's undersexed boss in a role that's an absolute embarrassment. Likewise, Mary Gross and Barry Newman (as Matt's parents) get to talk about sex after hip-replacement surgery. It's a scene both actors would do well to forget.

But the problems here go much deeper, especially considering the film's unfilled promise. 40 Days and 40 Nights starts off as a thinking-person's sex comedy, complete with genuine laughs, but it eventually becomes cliched, predictable and crude. And that's a real sin.

40 Days and 40 Nights

Starring Josh Hartnett, Shannyn Sossamon

Directed by Michael Lehmann

Released by Miramax

Rated R (adult language, sexual content, nudity)

Running time 93 minutes

SUN SCORE **

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