40 Days and 40 Nights

40days

“Whenever the camera’s on him, he purses his lips and looks grim.” I wrote that line, rather uncharitably, not long ago about Josh Hartnett’s performance (or lack thereof) in Black Hawk Down. Having now seen Hartnett in 40 Days and 40 Nights, I can only conclude that that’s what happens when you take an actor built for romantic comedy and put him in a war movie. In this fairly gimmicky but entertaining fluffball, directed by Michael Lehmann (Heathers) from a script by Robert Perez, Hartnett connects with the audience humbly and simply; it’s like the old movie cliché wherein a big bruiser turns out to sing beautifully. Hartnett is a surprise; so is the movie, which looks dumb in the ads but, like American Pie, manages to be both raunchy and sweet.

Hartnett is Matt Sullivan, a website designer gnawing at his post-breakup wounds; his ex (Vinessa Shaw) has wasted no time getting engaged to some jerk, and Matt throws himself into meaningless flings until he starts imagining that his bedroom ceiling is cracking open. Taking this as a metaphor for the emptiness he feels inside, Matt anguishes over his libido in hushed conversations with his brother (Adam Trese), who listens with a not entirely sympathetic ear, since he also happens to be a priest. Leaving the confessional one day, Matt hits upon an idea to cleanse his soul and body of lust — giving up all sexual gratification for Lent. Of course, this time of trial is when he meets the perfect woman, Erica (Shannyn Sossamon), who gets to play the usual male role of waiting for a romantic partner to put out. (As a cyber-nanny, she probably looks at more porn daily than he does.)

As I said, 40 Days and 40 Nights rests on a gimmick, but then so did The Truth About Cats and Dogs, a previous (and equally smart and satisfying) romantic comedy directed by Michael Lehmann. It’s clear that Lehmann is a journeyman filmmaker who’s only as good as the script (he was the one with the misfortune to get handed the keys to Hudson Hawk, and his last movie, four years ago, was the Billy Crystal flop My Giant). But if Hartnett was born for romantic comedy, so was Lehmann, who guides the characters with a light and sensible touch. The scenes at Matt’s workplace, full of snide web geeks placing bets on when Matt will end his abstinence, crackle with wit; the coworkers in this movie feel like people who work with each other every day (not an easy feat — many movies fail in this regard).

As the film goes on, Matt faces steadily worsening challenges to his will power; a trio of office vixens (with rhyming-bimbo names Candy, Mandy and Andie) all but throw themselves at him, not necessarily to win the office pool but, interestingly, because they’re incensed that the Lysistrata-like power of withholding sex, which usually rests with women, now rests with him. Matt’s hapless boss (Griffin Dunne) thinks it’s a great idea — if he denies his frigid wife sex, she’ll be crawling all over him! — but it only works for Matt, perhaps because he’s genuine about it; he’s not withholding as a tactic, and maybe it’s one of the few meaningful things he’s done as an adult that aren’t meant to get a woman into bed.

Michael Lehmann has a knack for intensely erotic hands-off sex scenes; fans of Truth About Cats and Dogs will remember two from that film — one involving food, the other involving a phone — and he’s got another one here, when Matt and Erica, without touching each other, make the most of an orchid petal. Lehmann also makes a city bus — where the couple spend their first date — seem like a bizarrely romantic backdrop. In Matt’s frenzied final hours of Lent, when he can’t turn around without seeing something designed to keep him tumescent (at one point he fantasizes splashing down into a sea of breasts), the movie leans towards easy crowd-tickling gags but never loses its core — a former horndog learning to live, and love, without sex, and the exasperated woman who happens to meet him while he’s learning.

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