Abstinence: What a concept! "40 Days and 40 Nights" is dedicated to the proposition that the American public wants to watch a comedy with "Pearl Harbor" hunk/star Josh Hartnett playing a guy who gives up sex. And maybe the public will. This pretty but witless movie is well-produced, slickly directed (by Michael Lehmann of "Heathers"), full of jokes about hot dudes and hot babes pitched right at the "American Pie" crowd, and as packed with eye candy as a joint issue of Maxim and Playgirl.
It's also one of the dumbest romantic comedies in quite a while, much sillier than you'd ever expect from Lehmann, Miramax or the producing team of Bevan, Fellner and London ("Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Bridget Jones's Diary"). Consider the premise. Hartnett plays Matt Sullivan, a brokenhearted San Francisco Internet employee (for bigwindow.com) who can't get ex-girlfriend Nicole (Vinessa Shaw) out of his mind, despite affairs and one-night stands and the constant cheerleading of his randy roommate, ever-ready Ryan (Paulo Costanzo of "Road Trip," the one actor here who gets consistent laughs). Faced with what seems like an emotional breakdown - whenever Matt has sex, he imagines the ceiling and walls cracking open, as they did for Catherine Deneuve in "Repulsion" - he comes to a drastic decision. While giving a sample confession to his seminarian brother John (Adam Trese), Matt vows to give up sex, with others or with himself, for Lent.
As you might expect, Matt is immediately besieged. Casual passersby on the street undress him with their eyes. (Later, he undresses them all back with his own eyes, though he tends to stop at lingerie.) At bigwindow.com, three determined office hotties named Candy, Andie and Mandy (Monet Mazur, Christine Chatelain and Keegan Connor Tracy) go to absurd lengths to seduce him. Foxy Nicole pops up again, dumped by her rich GQ-style boyfriend and hot to trot. And, wonder of wonders, Matt meets the real girl of his dreams, smoky-eyed Erica Sutton (Shannyn Sossamon of "A Knight's Tale") at the local Laundromat, and starts immediately, but sexlessly, dating her. Meanwhile, his dot-com buddies have set up a Web site, The Vow, to chronicle Matt's adventures in chastity, and a betting pool on which day he falls, with a kitty that soon swells to $18,000.
Now, I realize that "40 Days and 40 Nights" is not intended to be anything but a glamorously produced sexual fantasy with some crude, lewd laughs. But even granting it that license, this movie is amazingly senseless. To start off, if those dot-com buddies have a big betting pool going, why do they do so little to monitor Matt's sexual activity, beyond following him around the office and having Ryan occasionally check his bed sheet for semen stains? (The bigwindow.com dudes act as if nobody has to spy on Matt as long as the movie audience is watching him.) Why should Matt's boss, Jerry (Griffin Dunne), who never has sex anyway, swear his own vow of abstinence? If it only takes $50 to join the pool, what good does it do Nicole to pony up a check for $3,500? Why doesn't she look and behave more like a woman who would haunt your dreams and less like a lady who takes American Express? Why does Matt allow Ryan to handcuff him to his own bed and leave him defenseless in a city where half the women seem bent on having him? And, because the whole reason behind Matt's Lent fiasco is that he can't forget his ex-girlfriend, why in the world should he keep his vow after meeting Erica, his new dream girl, especially since his unexplained hands-off routine jeopardizes their relationship?
"40 Days and 40 Nights" rambles on inanely to the end, spouting cliches with abandon, getting sillier with every scene. It has unfunny Viagra jokes, panty jokes, auto-eroticism jokes and lesbian turn-on jokes (but no gay male jokes, even though we're in San Francisco). Indeed, everyone in the entire movie seems to be in a state of nonstop sexual frenzy, including the priest and nun at John's church, every single employee of bigwindow.com, every woman on the street and even Matt's parents (Mary Gross and Barry Newman), who regale him with sexual anecdotes at dinner.
To top it all off, "40 Days" is filled with misfiring gags about what we might euphemistically describe as Matt's visible conditions of horizontal excitement - including one jaw-dropper where he rushes through his office and into an important meeting apparently unaware of his stiff state. And finally, just like those old '60s Doris Day innuendo-fests, this movie tries to sign off on true love and a happy ending - so we won't think Matt and Erica are as sex-crazed as everyone else in the picture.
"40 Days and 40 Nights" may well tickle its target audience. But, after being simultaneously besieged by this picture's idiocies and ravished by its eye candy, you may feel like taking a vow of abstinence yourself- at least from Hollywood youth-sex comedies.
"40 Days and 40 Nights"
Directed by Michael Lehmann; written by Robert Perez; photographed by Elliot Davis; edited by Nicholas C. Smith; production designed by Sharon Seymour; music by Rolfe Kent; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Michael London. A Miramax Films release; opens Friday, March 1. Running time: 1:34. MPAA rating: R (language, nudity and sensuality).
Matt Sullivan - Josh Hartnett
Erica Sutton - Shannyn Sossamon
Ryan - Paulo Costanzo
Jerry - Griffin Dunne Nicole - Vinessa Shaw
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune movie critic.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times