Abstinence Makes the Heart Grow Purer

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 1, 2002

THIRTY SECONDS before watching "40 Days and 40 Nights," I'm entertaining the spectacular idea of a critic's seppuku. A ritual suicide, that is, before the horrified folks who have gathered to watch this romantic comedy sneak preview. I mean, anything to avoid enduring "40 Days and 40 Nights," about a twentysomething guy trying to withstand his sexual impulses.

Conclusion: naaaah. For one thing, space in this seat is too cramped. And besides, I left my seppuku dagger at home. There is also the dim hope the movie could be good. After all, it was directed by Michael Lehmann, who made the excellent "Heathers." And it stars Josh Hartnett, who's quite a bit more serious than the usual pearly toothed bimbo (see Freddie Prinze Jr. for details) you find in this overworked genre.

Minutes into the movie, everything changes. It's funny! It's not Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" or anything, but it's pretty darned good! Hartnett makes an excellent, uh, withstander of urges. And first-time scriptwriter Rob Perez tweaks the familiar formula to maximum comedic capacity. You don't even despise yourself for laughing.

Hartnett plays Matt Sullivan, a Web designer who's just been shafted by his rather status-conscious girlfriend, Nicole (Vinessa Shaw). In shock, he picks up women in droves. He can't help himself. They come to him like pigeons to bread. But as soon as Matt and his latest date get down to the passionate nitty-gritty, he has a disturbing hallucination: a large crater seems to form in the ceiling above her head.

"What are you looking at?" asks one woman in flagrante delicto.

When this happens, Matt basically freaks: tumbles off the bed, curls into a fetal position, or runs to the bathroom. His life is out of control.

"You're action-packed with issues," says Matt's roommate, Ryan (Paulo Costanzo).

After consulting with his seminarian brother (Adam Trese), Matt concludes that he's going to give up sex ¿ and anything to do with it ¿ for Lent. Christ avoided temptations of a far higher order in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. Matt should be able to stay celibate.

"Dude!" says the excited Matt, giving a spiritual thumbs-up to a crucifix on the wall.

Easier said than done. Matt's world is bustling with babes. In the office. On the street. Everywhere. And it's spring, too. Satan himself seems to be testing Matt's resolve. To make matters worse, he meets and really likes Erica (Shannyn Sossamon), who's more than just attractive. She could be The One.

Matt agrees to a date with Erica, which poses some tough challenges. Meanwhile, Matt's friends and work mates have started a betting pool on when the poor lug's going to cave. They've even posted news of his vow on the Internet. The cash pot is worth thousands, which makes more than one bettor determined to cause something to happen. Bring on the temptresses!

Thanks to Lehmann and Perez, this abstinence comedy is a smooth, if occasionally very crude, riot. (It's also surprisingly sophisticated in terms of its structure and philosophy. But you don't want to hear about that.) Hartnett, an amiable performer with great acting ability, makes his character more than a mere player. And he's surrounded with equally funny characters. I especially enjoyed someone who's called, simply, the Bagel Guy (Michael Maronna). A redheaded sage who makes his philosophical points about men and women while he rams bagels onto their display pegs, he's a sort of Shakespearean fool or touchstone. And he understands the movie's unpretentiously wise message: Sex is life's blindfold. You gotta lift it from your eyes ¿ at least for a while ¿ to see things clearly.

40 DAYS AND 40 NIGHTS (R, 91 minutes) ¿ Contains crude humor, obscenity, sexual scenes and nudity. Area theaters.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company