40 Days & 40 Nights Review
One day, there is going to be a sex comedy that brilliantly captures the poignancy, frustration and exhilaration of early sexual experiences; Alfonso Cuaron's magnificent Y Tu Mama Tambien came very close indeed, as did the original film of The Graduate, but both slightly dodged the issue by having a conventional figure of an experienced older woman as a guide to the naive and inexperienced protagonist(s). Although Michael Lehmann's film deserves some credit for keeping all the central characters more recognisably grounded in an early-twenties, San Francisco milieu which feels altogether more realistic than American Pie or Road Trip, the sheer inanity of the premise makes this a disposable and occasionally repellent experience.
The plot, which sounds funnier than it actually is, concerns Matt Sullivan (Hartnett), a pleasant but somewhat limited young man who, after splitting painfully from his girlfriend, finds himself taking up with a procession of women, which in turn leads to the gradual destruction of his immortal soul. Well, that's overstating the case a bit, but he is sufficiently concerned to visit his brother John (Trese), a trainee priest, who counsels him as to the importance of repressing his urges. To his flatmate Ryan's (Costanzo) initial dismay, Matt decides to give up sex, masturbation and general personal gratification for- oh yes- forty days and forty nights. (Parallels with Noah's Ark could be made, briefly, and then moved on from swiftly when the idea of that kind of self-pleasuring sinks in.) However, as Hollywood luck would have it, Sullivan meets Erica (Sossamon, as dull as she was in A Knight's Tale), a beret-wearing young woman who he- do I need to spell this out?- falls in love with. Which leads to problems, some of the virtually amusing kind.
For someone who has been in some very high-profile films, Hartnett does not give the impression of being entirely comfortable in front of the camera, and his performance here is a rather embarrassing experience, full of the kind of over-obvious mugging that so spoilt Lehmann's Hudson Hawk, and utterly devoid of any of the heart or soul that might have made an audience empathise with this character; for one thing, the fact that his character gives up sex because- lads!- he's getting too much is either going to lead an audience to feel distaste or disbelief, according to their age and level of emotional maturity.
The film's other major fault is that it simply isn't very funny. There are occasional flashes of hilarity, such as a Terry Gilliam-esque fantasy scene when Sullivan imagines himself floating over a land composed entirely of female breasts; unfortunately, this follows a sub-Benny Hill sequence where he imagines that every attractive woman he sees is naked. A constant irritation is that just about every scene that has some comic potential is spoilt, whether through underdevelopment or sheer ineptitude. A good example comes early when a colleague of Sullivan attempts to seduce him out of his vow, in the least intimate manner imaginable. While such a scene should build to a fine comic crescendo of supressed lust unable to restain itself, Lehmann ends it far too early, and with a whimper rather than a bang. This sums up the entire film rather nicely, in fact; it feels as if it had shot whatever comic bolt it had long before the final product came to the screen.
There are numerous other faults throughout, from the underdeveloped supporting characters (Newman and Dunne, two fine comic actors, are both given nothing parts) to the logical flaws in the central plot devices; it doesn't help that Sullivan's so-called 'friends' are about as repellent a group of twisted perverts seen on screen for a while. If anything, they are more reminiscent of Neil LaBute's work than a genuine group of acquaintances. It comes as no surprise, in the context of the film, that the way that Sullivan's vow eventually comes to an end is about as bitter and unpleasant as anything else seen before; without wishing to 'spoil' it, it hinges on one character essentially raping another. Charming.
On a smutty, basic level, this may make the unsophisticated think that this is an occasionally amusing little sex comedy, and it's always going to be disingenuous to try to compare it to something rather more advanced than it is. However, it represents yet another disappointment in Lehmann's career; after Heathers and the charming The Truth About Cats and Dogs, he has certainly proved that he can direct superb comic films. This, regrettably, is not one of them.