A romantic comedy about a hunky guy who gives up sex for Lent sounds smirky, and "40 Days and 40 Nights" is that--but it offers more. That's because it was directed by that most subversive of filmmakers, Michael Lehmann ("Heathers") from a script by a terrific first-time writer, Robert Perez, who's in tune with Lehmann's dark, gleeful sense of humor. "40 Days and 40 Nights" can be taken as a mildly risque frothy date movie, but there's serious subtext for those who choose to look beneath surface sheen.
Josh Hartnett stars as Matt, a San Francisco dot-com wiz whose gorgeous girlfriend, Nicole (Vinessa Shaw), has dumped him. Matt is so devastated that casual sex leaves him depressed and feeling like a black hole is opening up to engulf him.
After a series of confessions to his priest brother, John (Adam Trese), he sees the advent of Lent as the opportunity to make a sacrifice that will help free him of his obsession with Nicole and regain his self-control. Matt's idea may sound a bit unrealistic amid the myriad temptations of these free and easy times, but it certainly seems worth a try. But that is not how Matt's planned abstinence is received in his world of good-looking, in-shape, pleasure-seeking singles. Even John scoffs at Matt's declaration of resolve, and Matt's crass roommate Ryan (Paulo Costanzo) does much worse: He lets Matt's co-workers in on his vow. They respond with considerably more than mere derision.
What's going on here between the lines of the sex jokes? It would seem that the notion of a young man discovering that sex can become meaningless without love is a truly threatening proposition to a bunch of people who've become conditioned to viewing sex as a competitive sport in which performance is everything and emotions beside the point. Although Matt proves resilient to those who underestimate his seriousness and determination, something gets in the way of his plan in the form of Erica (Shannyn Sossamon), a young woman of imagination and intelligence whom he meets about two weeks after his vow of abstinence.
The way Matt's fate plays out is consistently engaging, at once clever and insightful. Matt is caught up in no less than a journey of self-discovery, with Nicole resurfacing in a manner that leaves him surprised to discover why he may have lost her.
Hartnett is the film's star through and through, and he reveals his versatility as a sophisticated, urbane male challenged by the depth of feeling he discovers within himself--a discovery that is totally at odds with the aggressive hedonism that rules his rigidly conformist world.
Hartnett is fortunate in his leading ladies. Sossamon's Erica is believably captivated and then puzzled by Matt's unexpected reserve. Nicole could so easily have been unsympathetic, but Shaw has the chance and ability to suggest that she might well have welcomed being treated like a woman instead of being worshiped like a goddess.
Costanzo is nimble at keeping up a steady supply of obnoxiousness--exactly what is required. Griffin Dunne is Matt's boss, who's inspired to try abstinence himself, hoping to energize his lackluster married life, and Barry Newman and Mary Gross are amusing as Matt's parents.
MPAA-rated: R, for strong sexual content, nudity and language. Times guidelines: The sex talk is extremely frank, and there's a fair amount of kinkiness as well.
'40 Days and 40 Nights'
A Miramax Films/Universal Pictures/StudioCanal presentation of a Working Title production. Director Michael Lehmann. Producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Michael London. Executive producers Liza Chasin, Debra Hayward. Cinematographer Elliot Davis. Editor Nicholas C. Smith. Music Rolfer Kent. Costumes Jill Ohanneson. Production designer Sharon Seymour. Art director Yvonne Hurst. Set decorator Lesley Beale. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
In general release.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times