40 Days and 40 Nights

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For the 40 days of Lent, a young single guy decides to give up sex and everything like unto it. It’s a struggle that no one thinks he can win, and indeed, it proves to be enormously difficult.

Can you imagine this movie being made in the 1950s, or even the early ’60s? As far as movies in those days were concerned, unmarried 20-somethings didn’t HAVE sex, or at least not so often that going without it for 40 days would be such a hardship. And the issue of, um, self-gratification was not broached at all in polite company.

But today’s adolescent and post-adolescent audiences — at whom this film is directly aimed — can hardly be called “polite company,” and philsophizing about how the times they are a-changin’ aside, “40 Days and 40 Nights” is an entertaining sex farce. It even manages to express some morally acceptable ideas here and there, amidst the jokes that you can imagine would be included in a movie about a sexually frustrated young man.

It’s a bad break-up that causes our hero, Matt (Josh Hartnett), to embark on this journey. Alas, the moment he sets the goal, he meets a woman named Erica (Shannyn Sossamon) whom he really likes, which will make the next 40 days even more difficult than he’d thought.

Protagonists in movies like this always have a best friend or roommate to tag along and make sardonic remarks, and this film has several people filling that role. Ryan (Paulo Costanzo) is the roommate, but Matt also has some co-workers who, with Ryan’s help, are monitoring Matt’s progress and betting on which day of the 40 he’ll finally cave in. What’s remarkable is that these “friends” are actually pretty funny, and not just the annoying frat-boy types who fall out of uncreative screenwriters’ word processors. Costanzo has some very amusing lines as the extremely unsupportive Ryan, and Glenn Fitzgerald and Michael Maronna steal a few moments as the betting pool coordinator and the bagel delivery guy, respectively.

Josh Hartnett has not done a lot of comedy before, but he shows a natural ability for it. His delivery is consistently deadpan and perplexed, like he has no idea what’s happening to him — a style that is markedly superior to many of his contemporaries, who prefer to overplay everything and bounce around like clowns.

The film, written by first-timer Robert Perez and directed by Michael Lehmann (“The Truth About Cats and Dogs”), hits some wrong notes here and there, notably with Matt’s boss (Griffin Dunne), who is frustrated in his own way. There is also trouble in the fact that Erica breaks up with Matt three times in the movie, and in each instance, she is blaming him for something that is either minor or not his fault. If that’s how the relationship is starting — with her pouting and him being a doormat — then it’s doomed for failure. But hey, if the kids are happy, who am I to judge?

It is not as funny as it could have been. Those wrong notes just mentioned are sour ones indeed, and they stand out precisely because the movie around them is generally so clever.

B- (; R, frequent harsh profanity, abundant sexually crude dialogue, some scenes of sexuality, a lot of nudity.)

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