The premise of 40 Days and 40 Nights is pretty arrogant on its part which is where some of the hate towards it stems from. Having not seen it since high school, my touchstone of knowledge came from the Flophouse Podcast whose three white male hosts are steadfast in their opinion that it’s one of the worst films ever made and have gone on record stating “if you see it in a video store, you should rent it and then throw it away.” I understand their frustration when at a glance this is a movie about a guy who is having so much sex that he feels compelled to give up all types of sexual pleasure for lent. Pretty infuriating if your twenties weren’t as fruitful in love. As a woman, I don’t harbor that resentment regarding the “lothario” Josh Hartnett’s dilemma or attraction to him for that matter as Harnett has always come off as the blankest slate of a human being. I find the film appealing as a sweet sex comedy and I enjoy watching the brief but sexy career of Shannyn Sossamon. Not that the movie deserves much credit, it’s not the waste that certain podcasters may lead you to believe.
It’s actually a movie about a guy dealing with a break which is something I respect. Maybe because I want to see men hit as hard by a break up as women, I like the perspective of a dumped Matt (Hartnett) whose friendships, sexual encounters, and productivity at work are all stunted by a crushing end to a relationship. The straw that breaks the camel’s back is his inability to orgasm during a one night stand due to visions of his ceiling crumbling and he seeks solace in his priest-in-training brother which is where he gets the idea of cleansing himself of sex for the 40 day long lent season. Yes, it’s ridiculous but the movie is aware of it as his quest is far from saintly. It’s not smart or bold enough for a critique on religion but tongue and cheek with the Christ illusions. The crux of the story is that during Matt’s symbolic absolution he meets the irresistible Erica (Sossamon) and finds himself at a crossroads of wanting to sleep with this stunning woman who he develops feelings for and following through on this commitment that becomes a bigger deal than anticipated. The plot gets dumber as I explain it as it relies on the stereotype that men are ravenous, sex crazed beings who can’t go a month without getting some. While that’s more far fetched, I buy Matt’s need to follow through on his word when it becomes this sprawling bet and friends, coworkers and complete strangers will benefit financially if he breaks the purge.
The sensual romance that blooms from the celibate relationship is what charms me and that courtship is what I’m a sucker for in rom-coms. At the same time, 40 Days contains the most aggravating trope which is that most of the conflict that arises is from simple miscommunications. They fight because he didn’t tell her he was undertaking an abstinence pledge, they fight because she thinks he had sex with his ex, the opening incident of him not orgasming is embarrassing because he inexplicably lies about. The film is adamant that all men are liars and pigs. The workplace which is an upstart tech company (ahead of the curve in 2002) is prime for a sexual harassment case as it’s the most uncomfortable business environment I’ve seen since Secretary yet the film presents it very casually. This is tangential but a convenient moment to appreciate Maggie Gyllenhaal in the best friend role who straight up kills it as “roommate who rolls her eyes.” A movie could always use more Gyllenhaal but the film works in spite of the grating plot devices and limitations of the actors. Where Hartnett falters, he makes up for it by having the perfect look of handsome enough that he can get laid consistently but boy scout-ish enough that you grasp the moral compass that leads him to this undertaking. And Sossamon who is not strong in other roles creates convincing chemistry that compels the balance of laundromat meet-cutes and board room boner jokes that are done exemplarily here.
If you can sit through the stupidity or at least suspend your disbelief that not having sex is such a brutal challenge that a man would turn to model plane building, then there’s fun to be had. This was released during the height of R-rated sex comedies like American Pie and Van Wilder which have questionable gender politics. There is a female-initiated rape scene that goes wildly unaddressed in the narrative which would have spun into a million think pieces if released today. I’d be harsher on this film’s reduction of women to sex objects if it wasn’t that the whole movie’s focus being about sex and that the men are portrayed equally poorly. I didn’t care for the trite scene of parents talking about sex which is awkward and unnecessary for the characters in the sequence and the audience or the sea of bare breasts Matt envisions as his abstinence drives him insane. There is the childish humor and male gaze that isn’t my taste but the love story gets me. As I said, I’m in it for the Sossamon and for some reason I can forgive most of this movie to arrive at the satisfying moments with her. It beats watching her being date raped in Rules of Attraction but I’ll save that review for another day.