'40 Days': Only One Thing on Its Mind

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 1, 2002

When it rains, it pours, and Matt Sullivan is being flooded out by women who want to have sex with him. Poor baby. That's the setup to "40 Days and 40 Nights," which asks the question: Can a fellow find sustenance in a strict hands-off policy that extends the length of Noah's ordeal?

The movie is both exhilarating and depressing. The trouble is, I can't figure out which is more important.

It's exhilarating because at least for a while it's smart and sharp and feels right. The young performers are vivid, their lives seem real. Their language, casually profane yet suffused with originality, seems real. They have funny things to say and they say them funnily. I laughed.

But it's depressing because its notion of Our Youth Today is not that it's a Generation X but a Generation seX. That's all these kids think about: sexsexsexsexsexsexsexsexsexsexsex. Life is a copulation-o-rama, a whirl on the orgasm-go-round, a bodily-fluid exchange sock hop. Can they get that much sex? Can there be that much sex to be gotten? Where's my Viagra? This bears investigating.

Josh Hartnett, who has done good work in his very short career as recently as "Black Hawk Down," mopes along as poor Matt, cursed because of his perfect cheekbones, eyes and muscles to be used as a sex toy by women every single night of his life!

Matt is particularly mopey since the woman he loved, the horrid Nicole (Vinessa Shaw), has dumped him for a haircut in an expensive suit. So Matt, haircutless and bejeaned, has a bad love jones; you can tell because he doesn't bother to tuck in his shirt.

But since I don't want to seem so bitter-old-guy here, I should say that Hartnett is basically quite good. He shows you Matt's confusion and how fed up he is with the one-night Jiffy Lube lifestyle. You can feel him yearning for something else and feel his frustration at his inability to clarify it, much less articulate it.

His pathology makes a little sense, at least. He's in mourning over Nicole, and to quash the pain he becomes the poster boy of the glands-R-us generation, but it doesn't work: He feels worse, not better. So to gain some control, he settles on the 40-day, 40-night rack of purity. And, just to get the rules straight, that purity is absolute: no dates with les femmes of vivid videotape, either.

His big mistake No. 1 is to tell the other badly dressed droogs at his bricky dot-com warren and also his sleazo-creepo roommate, played with obnoxious gusto by Paulo Costanzo. They respond sensitively by running an Internet book on when he'll break down and treat himself to a blastoff of one sort or other.

Mistake No. 2: meeting Miss Perfect, Erica, with those lips, those eyes. Abstinence suddenly goes from difficult to nearly impossible; sex, suddenly infused with emotional meaning, transmogrifies from relaxation mechanism to soul expression. Kid, that's a tough one. As the great Pat Benatar observed, love is a battlefield.

Erica is played by the daffily beautiful Shannyn Sossamon (the princess in "A Knight's Tale"), and "40 Days" is at its best when it is, in fact, a night's tale: These two basically quite decent young people meet cute, date cute and abstain cute. The writer, Rob Perez, has a flair for authentic youthspeak. And the director, a famous smarty-pants named Michael Lehmann (one great movie: "Heathers"), momentarily gets away from the kids-as-bunnies routine.

So there you have classic romantic-com structure: lovers separated by a ridiculous obstacle that nevertheless must be respected. The complications mount as various temptations are thrown Matt's way.

This is where "40 Days and 40 Nights" means to be edgy but is really rather loathsome. It postulates that the boy and girl bunnies surrounding Matt and Erica are so affronted by the idea of celibacy that they conspire against it and him and them. This, of course, would certainly be true of the boys in this picture, who are cruel young monsters anyway. Don't tell anybody, but it would also be true of all boys everywhere, in every period of history, forever and ever.

But the film is almost grotesquely wicked toward young women: It insists that, Erica aside, they are scheming, hormone-driven sack addicts, yearning for corruption, so driven by cynicism and the myth of the perpetual orgasm that they will do anything to dissuade poor Matt. His perfection drives them crackers.

They are all, if these words are still allowed, sluts and tramps. Can that be close to the truth? I hope not. It seems more like some ugly secret strain of misogyny on the part of the forty-something Lehmann than a fair assessment of life lived among the young.

And, sadly as well, the movie doesn't end, it stops. Certain compacts have been made with the audience ¿ bad behavior must be punished, virtuous rewarded ¿ and the movie flubs those obligations clumsily. You walk out thinking: (a) Can young women be that nasty, and (b) did Lehmann nod off, old-guy style, when he was shooting the ending sequences?

40 DAYS AND 40 NIGHTS (R, 97 minutes) ¿ contains profanity and sexual situations. At area theaters.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company