Directed By: Michael Lehmann
Written By: Rob Perez
Produced By: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Michael London
Cast: Josh Hartnett, Shannyn Sossamon, Paulo Costanzo, Adam Trese, Vinessa Shaw
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 96 minutes
Review Date: February 4, 2011
Matt’s (Josh Hartnett) idea is to take sex off the table in observation of Lent (but mainly to get over an ex-girlfriend) and — surprise — ends up spending the entire forty days discussing why he isn’t having sex, what else he can do besides having sex, and, generally, sex (in the same way he says he’s over the girl but keeps bringing up how he’s so over her). Screenwriter Rob Perez tries to excuse it as the elephant in the room a person can’t stop thinking about because they’re purposefully trying to avoid it, but 40 Days and 40 Nights is all the more tedious for its one-track mind.
It begins innocently enough as a sex romp that has no delusions of misinterpreting sex (or lack thereof) for love. Matt has girlfriend (Vinessa Shaw). Matt loses girlfriend. Matt has random sex with other women over the course of six months to try to get over said girlfriend and finds himself staring into an abyss — quite literally, as the ceiling above his bed cracks open to a black hole mid-climax. The kid’s got it rough, sure enough.
His roommate, Ryan (Paulo Costanzo), is a horn-dog always coercing Matt to go out and party every night (usually returning with another random woman, one of whom demands to see the contents of his used condom, a sequence that has a fine enough punchline (a really poorly faked orgasm) until it tries to find another (searching for a substitute to fill the void)), and his brother, John (Adam Trese), on his way to the priesthood, has no sound advice. On a whim, Matt learns that Lent, a forty-day period of preparation for Easter that includes fasting and, for some, abstaining from a pleasure of one’s choosing, is approaching. He decides to take a vow of celibacy during that time, which also means no sexual physical contact of any kind with another or on his own.
It’s fine enough when the movie stays focused on Matt, as he cleans out pornography and vegetable oil to avoid temptation and takes up model car building and extra work, and then about five minutes later Perez’s script introduces Erica (Shannyn Sossamon). They meet at the Laundromat and discover they are kindred spirits because they both underline words they don’t recognize in their reading to look up the definition later.
Their first meeting practically defines the rest of their relationship: She brings up random points of connection, and he doesn’t say a word (apparently afraid that speaking will lead to sex). They don’t talk much (a silent date montage as they ride the bus shows them mouthing some conversation in between people-watching), and when they do, it’s about sex — how he wants to have it but can’t, how she wants to have it and doesn’t understand his reasoning. He doesn’t even mention his temporary celibacy to her, which begins the string of required conflicts between them, and she has to find out through a website Matt’s “friends” start so people can take bets on if and/or for how long he will last.
The decision, of course, arises from his ex-girlfriend, who shows up in the third act to sabotage his vow and relationship with Erica (the way Perez goes about creating the circumstances in which Matt is entirely blameless is ludicrous), and before that, Matt is reduced to a bumbling idiot by his surging, unsatisfied libido (he catches his sleeve on fire, and there’s that lazy gag of unintentional Viagra ingestion).
It’s Matt and Erica’s relationship, as dishonest about its center (repeating it’s not about sex while showing that it entirely is) as Matt can be about his reasoning, though, that is the key to how mundane 40 Days and 40 Nights is.
Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.