One of the more gratifying feelings a movie critic can have is the feeling of going into a picture expecting tiresome clichés of an overplayed genre, only to discover delightfully surprising freshness and soul where all the hackneyed conventions usually are.
"40 Days and 40 Nights" is such a movie. Misleadingly marketed as just another misogynistic romp through the young male libido, this often ribald comedy about a frustrated 20-something giving up sex for Lent is what the puerile, simplistic "American Pie," "Tomcats" and "Saving Silverman" might have been, had they been made by people with imagination and wit.
Directed by Michael Lehmann -- the man behind the twisted teen angst and irony of the subversive '80s cult hit "Heathers" -- "40 Days" finds many new and inventive ways to make sexual frustration funny.
Resolved to eschew any and all forms of sex (kissing, caressing and self-gratification are all out) because promiscuity isn't helping him heal a broken heart, web site design drone Matt (Josh Hartnett) spends Day One of Lent emptying his apartment of everything remotely salacious: Victoria's Secret catalogs, his roommate's porn, Crisco Oil from the kitchen....
By Day 11 he's getting along OK, but he's begging his boss for extra work to keep himself distracted. When word gets out about what he's up to, Matt's co-workers set up a web site dedicated to his abstinence and start taking bets on how long it will last. Soon they're trying to sabotage him too. Somebody puts Viagra in his coffee. A pair of sexpot secretaries at the big, hip dot-com (was this movie written before 2001 or what?) bet on a particular day for Matt to snap, then corner him in a supply room and try to make an offer he can't refuse while Xeroxing body parts as souvenirs.
What's worse, only a few days into Lent, Matt meets the girl of his dreams, sweet'n'sassy, stylish urban tomboy Erica (Shannyn Sossamon from "A Knight's Tale"). And just guess what she does for a living: She's a "cyber nanny." She surfs the web looking for porn sites to block -- all day, every day.
Restricted by his ever-more-aggravating vow, which he's determined to see to fruition, Matt rediscovers the simple joys of slow romance while falling in love with Erica. They go on non-dates (e.g. spending a day together riding city busses around San Francisco) and seek creative ways to get intimate without, you know, getting intimate. There's a very sexy seduction scene in which flower petals are used as a tool of arousal. Yowza!
The longer this goes on, however, the crazier Matt gets, and Hartnett's personality-popping performance reflects his frustration perfectly with increasingly physical character traits. By the third act, the poor guy has gone all twitchy and walks around almost hunched over with his hands thrust into his pockets almost up to his elbows.
Meanwhile Lehmann and rookie screenwriter Robert Perez consistently find new angles from which to approach the story's more trite elements. Several fantasy and dream sequences have an off-kilter, Coen Brothers-type bent to them. In a family dinner scene, a mortified Matt's can't seem to stop Dad from detailing his attempts to have sex with Mom after his hip surgery. Lehmann lets the laughs come naturally, especially in this scene, which would have been turned into an embarrassing slapstick routine by most Hollywood directors.
However, the movie's best narrative device is also its most clever -- Matt's brother (Adam Trese) is studying to be a priest, so our hero keeps going to confession to get advice on how to quell his cravings. After one session, he's so excited about feeling better that he pops his head out of the confessional, points up to a statue of Jesus, and extollingly exclaims, "Dude!"
"40 Days" is burdened with an overabundance of stock supporting characters, conspicuously tweaked to seem less conventional. It also sinks to the normal, lame level of its genre for the over-scripted movie-misunderstanding climax -- set into motion when, on Day 40, Matt tells his departing roommate to "handcuff me to the bed and leave the front door open." Don't ask.
But even in the picture's weaker moments, Hartnett and Sossamon continue to have great chemistry, and Lehmann continues to be a resourceful and mischievous director who understands the importance of character-driven comedy.
He's also one of the few directors who knows how to capture the character of San Francisco in true-to-life details instead of making the entire city look like one big postcard.
Production compaines: Miramax Films, Universal Pictures, Working Title Films
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Director: Michael Lehmann
Starring: Josh Hartnett as Matt Sulivan, Shannyn Sossamon as Erica Sutton, Adam Trese as John Sullivan, Emmanuelle Vaugier as Susie, Barry Newman as Walter Sullivan, Mary Gross as Bev Sullivan, Paulo Costanzo as Ryan, Keegan Connor Tracy as Mandy, Maggie Gyllenhaal as Sam, Michael C. Maronna as Bagel Boy