starring Josh Hartnett, Shannyn Sossamon, Monet Mazur, Maggie Gyllenhaal
screenplay by Rob Perez
directed by Michael Lehmann
by Walter Chaw Matt (Josh Hartnett) is an oversexed young man in a sanitized San Francisco who, after suffering a tough split from man-eater Nicole (Vinessa Shaw), decides to follow his brother John (Adam Trese), an apprentice in the seminary, in the walk of celibacy. He gives up sex for Lent in all its myriad forms (neglecting, dishonestly, orchid-alingus in the film's dumbest bit of "Penthouse Forum" erotica), and spawns an Internet culture of schadenfreudens waiting for Matt to fall off the wagon and into the hay. During that period, can it be any wonder that Matt meets Erica (Shannyn Sossamon), the girl of his dreams, in a Hopper-esque laundromat?
Though destined to be consigned to the dustbin of adolescent scatology farce, 40 Days and 40 Nights sits balanced on the strange junction between two of Hollywood's more interesting and disparate formula trends: the masturbation shuck and the spirituality jive. The one, spurred on by early Farrelly brothers, deals with the ways in which young men fixate on spanking the monkey; the other, spurred on by The Sixth Sense, deals with the ways in which Hollywood espouses spirituality while refraining from flaunting any actual religion. In a way, it could be said that 40 Days and 40 Nights (a title that reimagines Christ's time in the desert being tested by Satan as the period of time a well-heeled young man spends not having sex) functions as an overt assertion that the male phallus is indeed the root of religion: horniness is next to godliness. I'm reminded of the origin of the Moses myth in the castration of Egypt's Osiris at the hands of his brother Set. In one amazingly brazen scene, at the height of his suffering, Matt notices the way he's handcuffed to his bed frame: "Hey, look, I'm just like Christ." It is an abuse of the literal origin of the word "passion," but no less fascinating for it.
Freudians take note, 40 Days and 40 Nights locates religion in the masculine genitalia. In a less esoteric sense, the film is arguably the first major studio release since Carnal Knowledge to attempt a dysfunctional comedy about fucking that's so frank and unapologetic in regards to the destructive prurience of the male gaze. It is a magnificently unsettling film in its exploration of the male libido: Women are all avaricious and warn smoulderingly of their "power" to withhold sex, and men are helpless to their "other head." Indeed, 40 Days and 40 Nights attempts to vaginize the penis (Matt is suddenly the coveted and the raped) while maintaining that its protagonist is himself helpless to his member's power (the turning point of the film comes when Matt proudly declares that his penis is no longer in charge). It has its pie and eats it, too.
40 Days and 40 Nights features no fewer than four separate conversations that confirm the "boys will be boys" worldview, and carries through on the sticky conceit of male as sexual victim by having its pivotal moment hinge on a man getting raped. Matt is victimized by both his penis and by all of a sexually crazed womanhood wishing to punish him for his abstinence. The film reflects that twisted phallo-centricity in its humiliating objectification of women and, oddly, in the portrayal of men as victims of their own libido. Note the number of times Matt is literally led around by his erection: It is the quintessential feminist revenge fantasy in that it not only gives this man the dream of a harem, but renders him unable to take advantage of it.
Easily Michael Lehmann's best film since Heathers, 40 Days and 40 Nights works far better as a discussion piece than as a film. Paulo Costanzo's fast-cracking sidekick and Sossamon's requisite meet-cute bimbo with "depth" provide the film's only truly dishonest moments. The urge to respect the conventions of the romantic comedy genre rather than explore the disquieting possibilities of its worldview (observe the film's poster art for an example of its dedication) ultimately undermines its theme. Still, a film as provocative and disturbing as 40 Days and 40 Nights deserves consideration. It's dangerous stuff that shouldn't be dismissed lightly. Originally published: March 1, 2002.