The premise for "40 Days and 40 Nights" is a novel one. Web designer Matt Sullivan (Josh Hartnett), tired of emotionless one night stands and still not over the breakup of girlfriend Nicole (Vinessa Shaw), decides to try and become a better person by sustaining himself from all sexual contact (including masturbation) for the 40 days of Lent. While his coworkers secretly start a web site and make a betting pool for how long they think his vow will last, further complications arise when Matt meets, and consequently falls for, the fetching Erica (Shannyn Sossamon).
Directed by Michael Lehmann (1989's cult classic "Heathers"), "40 Days and 40 Nights" takes the decidedly quirky and original storyline and then fails to put it to positive comedic use. Not only is the movie rarely funny, but it constantly faces an identity crisis, torn between being a gross-out comedy and a tender romance. With the help of newcomer Rob Perez's screenplay, the former isn't clever enough to work, and the latter is immature, predictable, and annoying.
For all of its attractive performers, "40 Days and 40 Nights" falls victim to being, plain and simple, dumb. Director Lehmann, whose satiric "Heathers" was smart and biting over ten years ago, treats his audience this time as if they aren't smart enough to realize how asinine the characters are. The romance between Matt and Erica has a couple cute moments, but mostly tests the viewers' patience with idiotic misunderstandings that could be solved with a single line of dialogue, and a lack of chemistry. There are moments when Sossamon looks as if she can't even stand Hartnett, let alone be falling in love with him, so how are we expected to care about their fate as a couple?
Josh Hartnett (2001's "Black Hawk Down
") gets his very first comedic lead role, as Matt, and he does manage to amuse. His increasing freneticism and physical jitters from lack of sexual release indicates a dedicated performer, but this shtick grows old quickly. As Erica, Shannyn Sossamon (2001's "A Knight's Tale
") struggles to find sympathy in a character that is written to always be jumping to conclusions and throwing things out of proportion. Special notice must go to Sossamon's apparent lack of a hairstylist. She has a pretty face, to be sure, but the rest of her looks like a junkie fresh out of rehab.
Hartnett and Sossamon get no help from their costars, although, in all fairness, nobody is even remotely written as a fleshed-out character. Perhaps the film's biggest flaw is in the treatment of Nicole, Matt's ex-girlfriend. I ask director Lehmann and writer Perez this: wouldn't Matt's difficulty in getting over Nicole have been more plausible had she not been depicted as a hateful, stereotypical bitch? Poor Vinessa Shaw, a talented actress who shined in 1999's "Eyes Wide Shut
," is thoroughly wasted as Nicole, just as she was in 2001's "Corky Romano
." Maybe she should fire her agent.
There is very little to recommend in "40 Days and 40 Nights," and yet, somehow the finished product isn't as horrible as it may initially sound. The film is poorly written and not particularly humorous, yet there is an energy to it, and Hartnett carries the proceedings on his shoulders with reasonable aplomb. A sequence involving a flower avoids easy ridicule to become quite erotic, while the rock music throughout is fun to listen to. Not the heartiest of compliments but, then, "40 Days and 40 Nights" isn't nearly good enough to deserve anything more.
©2002 by Dustin Putman