Scoring points at the very least for restoring erotic tension between a young man and woman by credibly introducing the necessity of restraint, "40 Days and 40 Nights" is a self-described abstinence comedy that is funny, sexy and silly in equal measure.

Scoring points at the very least for restoring erotic tension between a young man and woman by credibly introducing the necessity of restraint, “40 Days and 40 Nights” is a self-described abstinence comedy that is funny, sexy and silly in equal measure. Tale of a hunky young man who struggles mightily to maintain his purity during a self-imposed sexual sabbatical has exactly one thing on its mind, and the fact that it’s decked out by a particularly delectable array of babes to surround would-be up-and-coming star Josh Hartnett won’t hurt this reasonably raunchy farce as a good twentysomething date attraction.

Lightweight but snappy Miramax/Universal co-venture from Working Title offers Hartnett out of military uniform for a change, and pic will serve as a revealing test of the extent of his B.O. appeal. The jokey, sometimes raucous attitude toward sex here will connect easily with young guys, as will the parade of hotties who are uniformly wound up and panting for instant action, but Hartnett holds the key where the femme audience is concerned.

Effectively simple premise positions Hartnett’s Matt as a San Francisco dot.commer who has no trouble finding willing young ladies to replace Nicole (Vinessa Shaw) after she dumps him. Unfortunately, he can’t get her out of his mind, and after a particularly dispiriting episode (and probable screen first) in which he fakes an orgasm to appease a demanding partner, he decides to give himself a break and, on the occasion of Lent, to give up the thing he likes best: “No sex and nothing sex-like,” he declares to his priest-in-training brother.

Naturally, Matt instantly meets a young lady who could well be Ms. Right, Erica (Shannyn Sossamon), who chats him up during a chance laundromat encounter. Even after a “date” that consists of a memorable tour of San Francisco on the public bus system, Matt can’t bring himself to tell her that he’s a man on a mission and she’ll just have to wait to get as much as a kiss from him.

Unfortunately, she finds out the hard way, on a sarcastic Web site called “The Vow” that Matt’s “buddies” at work have created to chart his progress. Some nice jokes stem directly from Web culture, from the betting pool established by Matt’s co-workers to Erica’s job as a censor of obscene sites that are linked to normal ones, a gig that requires her to look at extreme pornography all day long.

Given that Matt’s abstinence (even from self-gratification) is the subject of the movie, the extent to which everyone else is obsessed with it is still ridiculous. Matt’s roommate Ryan (Paulo Costanzo) never stops ragging him about it, his religious brother insists it’s not a proper sacrifice for Lent since you’re not supposed to have premarital sex anyway, and the men and women at the office do everything they can, in their own ways, to see that he doesn’t achieve his goal of 40 days without; the lubricious ladies, in particular, seem intolerably turned on by the resident stud’s sudden lack of interest, to the point of trying to ravish him in the back room.

Then there’s the predatory Nicole, who abruptly returns to insist that they get it on at once, now that she’s free again; when Matt refuses, she becomes even more aroused, only to turn vengeful when scorned. The suspenseful final day is downright hallucinatory, as Matt has visions of naked women everywhere, boners that won’t go away and a dream of flying over an ocean of naked breasts as the clock ticks down.

The gags offered up by tyro screenwriter Robert Perez are hit-and-miss, ranging from a Viagra-spiked drink intended for Matt that amusingly ends up with his sex-starved boss (Griffin Dunne) to an unamusing dinner-table riff by Matt’s father about his sexual options now that he’s had a hip replacement. If Perez and director Michael Lehmann had tried to deepen the film’s potentially serious themes as often as they make light of them, they might have come up with something more than the disposable farce at hand.

Hartnett can hardly be accused of having the comic timing of Cary Grant, or Hugh Grant for that matter, and his expressive range still seems quite pinched, but he’s amiable enough under the circumstances. Not having shown much in her “A Knight’s Tale” debut last year, the saucy Sossamon emerges much more winningly here as a lady worth waiting for. Shaw sizzles as the ex-from-hell, while Costanzo gets good second-banana laughs as Matt’s pushy roommie. Michael Maronna exhibits manic energy as a nosy bagel delivery guy.

Shot mostly in Vancouver, pic features enough San Francisco locations to retain the desired atmosphere. Song-dominated score is lively.

40 Days and 40 Nights

Production

A Miramax (in U.S.)/Universal (foreign) release of a Miramax Films, Universal Pictures and StudioCanal presentation of a Working Title production in association with Milo Prods. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Michael London. Executive producers, Liza Chasin, Debra Hayward. Co-producer, Stuart M. Besser. Directed by Michael Lehmann. Screenplay, Robert Perez.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Elliot Davis; editor, Nicholas C. Smith; music, Rolfe Kent; music supervisor, Bonnie Greenberg-Goodman; production designer, Sharon Seymour; art directors, Yvonne Hurst, Nanci Noblett (S.F.); set designer, Don Halton; set decorators, Lesley Beale, Barbara Munch (S.F.); costume designer, Jill Ohanneson; sound (Dolby/SDDS/DTS), David Husby, Nelson Stoll (S.F.); supervising sound editors, Robert Shoup, Jerry Ross; assistant director, Walter Gasparovic; casting, Joseph Middleton. Reviewed at Sunset Tower screening room, West Hollywood, Feb. 19, 2002. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Matt - Josh Hartnett
Erica Sutton - Shannyn Sossamon
Nicole - Vinessa Shaw
Ryan - Paulo Costanzo
Sam - Maggie Gyllenhaal
Bagel Guy - Michael Maronna
Chris - Glenn Fitzgerald
Mom - Mary Gross
Father Maher - Stanley Anderson
John - Adam Trese
Dad - Barry Newman
Jerry - Griffin Dunne
Candy - Monet Mazur
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