40 Days and 40 Nights

The American Sex Comedy has been experiencing a death spiral over recent decades, as anyone who’s compared Some Like it Hot to American Pie can readily attest. But the species’ vital signs receive a mild resuscitation in the form of 40 Days and 40 Nights, a surprisingly clever little piece of fluff. It eventually succumbs to a few baser influences but most of the film provides biting laughs and ample evidence that heretofore heartthrob Josh Hartnett has a definite future in romantic comedy.

This is the kind of film where no one has or needs a last name and everyone spends 100% of their waking hours talking about their relationships and thinking about sex – especially while at work. Matt (Hartnett) is no exception, a twentysomething dot.commer. But since being dumped by his last girlfriend, Nicole, he’s been harboring more than the usual amount of hormonal obsession. So for six months, he’s been a serial tryst-er, staggering between one-night stands and (by guy standards, at least) having a hard time rationalizing who or what he’s become. In a conversation with his seminarian brother, Matt has an epiphany: he’ll give up sex for Lent – no kissing, no foreplay, no self-gratification. Nothing.

Naturally, the universe conspires against Matt reaching his goal. Everything he sees becomes sexually charged, even someone placing bagels on a rack. His co-workers start a web site to keep track of his progress and make bets on his chances of success. And he meets… a girl. The Girl. Erica, a raven-haired beauty who can’t understand why Matt ends their first date with a high-five instead of a kiss and stubbornly shows no interest in getting into her pants.

The screenplay is an impressive debut effort from Robert Perez, more intelligent than the standard sex comedy gropefest and full of subtle touches making stock situations unique. One example: a female co-worker tries to seduce Matt, partially to win the office pool, partially to deny Matt the power-gaining strategy of withholding sex that she considers strictly a woman’s purview. To try to clinch the deal, she shows Matt a notarized contract proving that she’ll donate her winnings to Greenpeace – she’s a siren, but with a conscience.

Director Michael Lehmann has done the relationship film thing before (The Truth About Cats And Dogs, Heathers), and here he’s assembled a fine ensemble cast of mostly new faces and plays them off of each other with vigor and wit. Paulo Costanzo makes Matt’s roommate Ryan an ascerbic counterpoint to Matt’s wide-eyed wonderment. As Erica’s best friend, Maggie Gyllenhall gives a performance that would make Joan Cusack or Elizabeth Perkins proud; she’s a delight whenever on screen. As Erica, Shannyn Sossamon manages to get her lines right and look radiant, and Vinessa Shaw does a snarlingly venomous and sensual turn as Matt’s ex, Nicole. The assorted members of the staff at Matt’s workplace are also refreshingly distinct.

But the real revelation is Hartnett himself. After his fine performance as Trip Fontaine in The Virgin Suicides he’d been mostly relegated to playing roles (Pearl Harbor) that didn’t require much more than being young and hunky. Here he’s required to serve as the comic center of the film while everyone else gets the best lines and biggest laughs. The film is its funniest when Matt’s just as surprised at what’s going on as the audience, and Hartnett delivers – in the accomplished yet self-effacing manner of a Jack Lemmon or Jimmy Stewart. And he also manages to project an innate goodness that makes Matt much more than just a frustrated lothario.

The film does pull a boner – unfortunately all too literally – towards the end of Matt’s quest, when one too many scenes revolve around his inability to suppress an erection, and the plot’s final resolution could have been handled more imaginatively. But before these few minor derailments 40 Days And 40 Nights is a pleasant surprise, a smart sex comedy that revels more in the gray matter than the groin.

– Bob Aulert