WARNING: The following review contains many spoilers. This review assumes you have seen the movie, as it will discuss the movie in its entirety. The goal of this review is not to be a recommendation to view or not view the film. The goal is, instead, to discuss and comment on many aspects of the film, and that can only be done through revealing various plot developments of the movie. If you have not yet seen the film and are simply looking for an opinion on the film before seeing it, this is NOT the review to read. This review should only be read after you have seen the movie and are interested in someone else's viewpoint on various elements of the movie. Again you have been warned: there are numerous spoilers ahead in this review, so read on at your own risk.

40 Days and 40 Nights (2002)

LVJeff's rating: 4/10

Of Fantasies and Contrivances

Ah, the romantic comedy.

I've stated this before, and I'll state it again. There are two kinds of romantic comedies: those which attempt realistic depictions of relationships, and those which depict relationships in a fairy-tale setting. The two are mostly distinguishable through their very different goals -- one tries to give insights in to the dynamic between man and woman, while the other sets up an interesting premise and watches as the characters involved try to squirm their ways out of it. 40 Days and 40 Nights is clearly set in the realm of the fairy tale.

Its premise is as straightforward as can be -- a man abstains from any kind of sexual or sexually-related activity for 40 days during the time of Lent. It's actually a pretty funny idea, and it might have played out well using a realistic setting. But this kind of simplistic plot practically screams to be given the overdrawn comedy skit treatment, loaded with gag potential as it is. The makers of 40 Days and 40 Nights gleefully oblige, setting the movie in a fantasy version of San Francisco, with jokes fit for a dirty cartoon and characters that exist mainly to drive plot and gags.

First thing's first. Consider these fantasy elements thrown in to make this movie max out its gag potential:

- The lead character, Matt (Josh Hartnett) has ample opportunities to have sex with beautiful women who have sex on first encounters. It is this way, of course, to make his vow of celibacy even more difficult than it would be for any normal man.

- Not only that, his dorky roommate also is able to land women at a miraculous rate for a dorky roommate, thus constantly providing Matt with temptations.

- Women at Matt's workplace are all hot, further challenging his vow. They are also willing to flirt with him in the most drastic of ways just to see him break his vow. Such flirtations include Xeroxing one's ass and lesbian kissing.

- Naturally, Matt meets the woman of his dreams on the first day of his self-challenge. The woman immediately falls for him without him having to say a word. When she gets to know him more, she wonders why he won't have sex with her. This guy's luck is incredible.

These actually aren't terrible things. The right amount of exaggeration can strengthen any comedy, so Matt's life in a world where the women are all easy and hot-to-trot is probably just the right setting for a story about a man who tries to stay away from sex.

Naturally, there is also room for a lot of set-pieces that would work well given this unique situation. As in many comedies, these can hit and miss. Some jokes that work involve the behavior of the participants in the office pool. Then there are the more risque sequences. One includes the plight of a co-worker after he's acidentally taken Viagra that was meant for Matt. Another really ups the ante in the raunch department -- Matt becomes turned on while fantasizing about his woman and inadvertently walks in to a meeting sporting a quite-visibly full erection. There's also the extremely bad piece involving Matt's parents discussing their sexual positions. Jokes like these will work for you or they won't, take them or leave them.

However, the movie finds its mis-steps with its convenient plot-driving characters and their contrived behaviors. The two characters who perpetrate this most heinous of romantic comedy weaknesses are the main female characters, Erica (Shannyn Sossamon) and Nicole (Vinessa Shaw).

Erica is mainly there to react all the wrong ways at all the wrong times. When Matt is too embarassed to admit he's taken a vow of celibacy -- he's afraid she'll think he's a sex-fiend, which he is -- he refuses to kiss her, thus baffling Erica and hurting her feelings. She finds out about his vow through accidental means, of course, and then is livid at him because she misunderstands, thinking she is the subject of his "experiment." When she gives him another chance, she suggests breaking his vow and then gets upset when he won't, because obviously her feelings and romantic/sexual gratification are more important to her than his test of his own will.

Nicole's role is even more inexcusable. She is introduced as the reason for Matt's taking on this challenge in the first place. He can't stop thinking about her, and takes it out by having sex with every other woman in the city. His solution is to quit sex cold-turkey and, in the process, reject his lingering feelings for Nicole as well. Now, this seems reasonable enough for this movie, and, since we don't know anything about Nicole, we assume that she must have been quite the catch to be able to hook on to his feelings for so long. In fact, we probably would've been quite happy to assume that she was such a nice catch. But, in the final act of the movie, the truth is revealed -- Nicole is a bitch. She is selfish, controlling, and vindictive. Is she like this because the writers needed her to be this way for proper character and motive development? No. She is only like this so she can come back as the one plot device that will ruin his streak. Only this vicious ex-girlfriend can be so cruel as to wreck his challenge, just because she can. Not only is this a cop-out on the part of the writers, it also makes us wonder why he pined for her so long in the first place, since she is so obviously repulsive in the personality department.

Better yet, that ending sets up the last contrived misunderstanding between Matt and Erica. After Nicole has cheated Matt out of his vow by riding him while he was handcuffed and essentially having a wet dream, Erika assumes, naturally, that he did it for... for what? To spite her? Does she just not want to believe that he really cares for her, even after the unique bus date and the orgasm-by-flower? (This, by the way, lends itself to another side note -- why is Sossamon playing the same self-centered type of character that she did in A Knight's Tale? She is the same demeaning woman who insists that her man prove himself to her in ways that a man should never have to, all the while looking for any reason to doubt him. How repulsive! Sossamon seriously needs a new agent.)

So there you have it -- simple premise, fitting fantasy setting, hit-and-miss gags, and badly written characters who have badly written misunderstandings and motives. 40 Days and 40 Nights decently finds a way to present a light-hearted sexual comic fairy tale, then derails itself with bad romantic comedy fallbacks. Matt nearly makes it through his ordeal, but the movie itself could not go the distance.

©Jeffrey Chen, Mar. 8, 2002

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