Lionsgate // 2011 // 96 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Josh Rode (Retired) // September 12th, 2011
He's about to do the unthinkable. No sex, whatsoever, for 40 days and 40 nights.
Josh Hartnett rocketed to stardom after a successful 2001 that featured lead roles in Pearl Harbor and surprise hit Black Hawk Down. Then he took a step away from playing soldier to try his hand at romantic comedy. It's probably not a coincidence that his star has been steadily fading ever since.
When Matt Sullivan (Hartnett) gets dumped by his girlfriend, he has such difficulty coping that he can't even enjoy sex with the dozens of other women he sees in the ensuing weeks. To clear his head, he decides to give up all sexual activity -- alone or with others -- during Lent. This being the movies, he is quickly inundated with beautiful women who want to sleep with him for one reason or another. This impassioned gaggle includes Erica Sutton (Shannyn Sossamon, The Day), who claims to want something other than the same type of loser men she normally ends up with. But she latches onto Matt despite the fact that he refuses to speak during their first meeting and then, when he finally starts talking to her, lies to her twice in the space of a week. In theory the film is about Matt's struggle to stay celibate despite all the women literally throwing themselves at him, but if you want to glean some real meaning from 40 Days and 40 Nights, think of it as Erica's story: a warning to run when the red flags start flying.
Okay, technically Matt and Erica do get together in the end (that's not a spoiler; 40 Days and 40 Nights advertises itself as "abstinent guy tries to stick with it despite the temptation of hot girl"), but I wouldn't give two cents for the future of the relationship. First, there's the aforementioned lying, which is used to keep the thin plot going through the middle third of the film. It's a common screenplay technique: guy lies to avoid embarrassing truth, knowing that the truth can't help but make its presence known, probably sooner than later. When the truth rears its inevitable head, chaos ensues and guy is embarrassed exponentially more than he otherwise would have been. Matt goes through this twice. And still Erica sticks with him.
This leads us to the second relationship killer: at no time is there palpable chemistry between Hartnett and Sossamon, so all of their scenes together lack real emotion. Sossamon tries; her Erica is engagingly sweet, and she sends out very real feelers to try to connect to Matt. Unfortunately, Hartnett is not up to the task of fielding the connection. He's great for roles as a soldier, where impassive features fit the strong, stoic image we like to attribute to our modern-day warriors. In a comedy, however, his lack of expression is a major hindrance. He emotes about as much as a plank of wood; his only two expressions are a serious stare and a smile that doesn't reach further than his lips. Matt and Erica's kiss, when it finally happens, makes an effective metaphor for their relationship. It's set up early on when Erica says you can tell true love by the first kiss. Theirs involves Matt lunging at her, gripping her head like a pair of vice grips, cramming his mouth over hers so hard she probably got a chipped tooth, and sucking the skin off her face (not literally, although that would have made 40 Days and 40 Nights more interesting). He clearly learned nothing at all from the flower scene, wherein he should have discovered how the equation "gentle" plus "intimate" equals "romance."
The plot has one minor (but telegraphed) twist towards the end; otherwise, the stages that Matt goes through are built into the premise. You have the initial "can do" attitude, the inevitable roommate tattletale, the co-worker ridicule, the doubters and converts, an office pool based on when Matt will cave that goes viral, and lots of erection gags. The relationship between Matt and Erica is likewise by-the-books: they meet, he doesn't tell her the whole truth, she finds out from other sources and drops him like a poisonous porcupine, he apologies, she swoons, repeat the entire thing, then get together and have sex for thirty-six straight hours.
The funniest bits surround Matt's roommate, one of his co-workers, and "The Bagel Guy," who knows everything that's going on in the city. All three are unique enough to bring something interesting to their parts. Unfortunately, the lead characters and the secondary characters think they're in different films. Matt and Erica are in a romantic comedy that would have been really engaging had Matt been played by a more expressive actor. Everyone else is in an American Pie type of broad sex comedy, except without the sex and with obvious gags. Since there is a major aspect missing from both views of 40 Days and 40 Nights, it can't satisfy on either end.
If you have the DVD already and you're wondering whether to upgrade, don't bother. The 1.85:1 transfer looks good, but the upgrade to 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio doesn't do much for a film like this and the extras are exactly the same: a sometimes informative but more often boring commentary by director Michael Lehmann, producer Michael London, and screenwriter Robert Perez, and a short "teaser trailer."
The flower scene is really close to being a classic example of erotica without sex, along the lines of the haircutting scene in Phenomenon. The idea is great, the setup is really nice, and Sossaman does her best to make it work. Hartnett, once again, is the proverbial fly in the ointment; he simply can't express enough emotion to stay engaged in the scene.
There are parts that hint the film could have been something more, but in the end its inconsistencies, broad comedic styling, and lack of chemistry keep it from its potential. 40 Days and 40 Nights has some chuckles, but look elsewhere for belly laughs.
Guilty of Aggravated Stoicism in an Emotional Film. Sentenced to three years' hard labor.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R