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40 Days and 40 Nights

Director: Michael Lehmann
Cast: Josh Hartnett, Shannyn Sossamon, Vinessa Shaw, Adam Trese, Griffin Dunne

(Miramax; US theatrical: 1 Mar 2002; 2002)

Dick joke

The ads for 40 Days and 40 Nights surely tell you more than you need to know about its one-joke premise. Pretty Josh Hartnett (last seen being bloodied and horrified in Black Hawk Down) makes a deal with himself, that he will not have sex—neither with someone else nor with himself—for the titular time period. Oh the hilarity.

There’s a “reason” that this guy, whose name is Matt, makes this deal with himself. Big surprise, it has to do with his being dumped by the Queen Diva Bitch on Wheels of All Time, Nicole (Vinessa Shaw). His heartbreak is explained by a few under-the-opening-credits scenes, shot in handheld home-video style, to suggest how organic and wholesome (and ancient) their romance is. When she dumps him in favor of some VP of Offensive Nerdery at Morgan Stanley (who gives her a huge engagement rock), well, Matt is just beside himself. This instigates the aforementioned deal with himself. And it establishes the film’s singularly dreadful point: this is a love story, yes, about a boy and his penis.

This isn’t to say that the movie doesn’t pretend that it’s about a boy and a girl, for, inevitably, as soon as Matt makes this deal with himself/his penis, he meets the absolutely-wonderfully-stunningly-fantastically perfect girl, Erica (Shannyn Sossamon), at a Laundromat. You’d think that this might prompt him to rethink the deal: what exactly is at stake in it, and for whom? But no. The movie never begins to answer, or really even ask, such questions. To tell you the truth, I’m not even really sure that I care that it doesn’t. The penis jokes become increasingly tedious—what with Matt trying so, um, hard, to resist the many temptations tossed in his way, mostly by girls who work at the same dotcom where he works, a place called (he does some kind of graphic design, that apparently involves some very mundane cut and paste layout, not on a computer: whatever).

I confess that my mind was wandering far and often during the screening, but it wasn’t entirely my fault—a girl sitting next to me, with four friends on her other side, repeatedly informed them that the movie was “really stupid,” and she had to say it loudly enough so the girl four seats down could hear her. Ordinarily, when people who aren’t you talk in the theater, it’s irritating. But this girl ended up being more entertaining than the film, because her efforts to convey her distaste seemed to escalate with the level of the film’s inanity: her gestures, her enunciation, her emphatically expressed pain. Let’s just say it was a long night.

To return (briefly) to the plot, such as it is: when Matt concocts this deal with himself/his penis, his first confidante is his brother John (Adam Trese), a seminarian who has only a few weeks to go before priesthood and positively no good advice to give his brother (though he’s supposedly expert on the abstinence thing, John is really very bad at it, and tells Matt every wrong thing to do). This Catholic connection is one of many clichis that 40 Days can’t seem to crawl out from under, so

When Matt finds out that his ostensible friends (a roommate, his coworkers, and the Bagel Guy) are taking bets on whether he can complete the deal, and as well taking bets from people around the world on the internet, this daunts him not. In fact, Matt becomes more determined than ever when he sees that others might benefit monetarily from his failure. But it’s not about money. There’s a principle involved. Maybe you have to have a penis to understand what that principle might be.

There are, of course, other penises in this mix, mostly to demonstrate that Matt’s relationship to his own penis is relatively healthy, or at least relatively unpathological. His buddies, of course, make dick jokes at every turn. And in a desperate effort to make him desperate enough to jerk off in the men’s room at work, they scheme to dose him secretly with Viagra. That the dose goes to his boss (Griffin Dunne, sweating and groveling and complaining about his woman who won’t “put out”—it’s actually quite heartbreaking to see Dunne going on like this) is evidently a source of immense humor, as the boss develops what appears to be a terminal erection, but perhaps I was distracted by that girl sitting next to me. “This is SOOO stupid!”

And so, I started to think about director Michael Lehmann’s distressing career, which, after the brilliant jumpstart with Heathers, has never recovered. I recall him telling me, during a 1994 interview concerning Airheads (don’t even ask how we came to that pretty pass), that he was unable to live down the disaster of Hudson Hawk, and it appears that this has remained the case. Though The Truth About Cats and Dogs was a relative commercial success, it remains a lame romantic comedy, based in the most tedious assumptions about heterosexual relations, namely, that games must be played, that boys must follow their dicks, and that girls (especially girls who think they are “ugly” like Janeane Garafolo: and how does that idea come into someone’s head?) must also follow these same dicks… Clearly, somewhere, there is a failure to communicate.

It’s downright distressing that this “new” film (and I use the term advisedly) makes the same points: Matt has trouble fessing up to Erica that he’s got this deal with himself, because, well, he knows she’ll thinks it’s ridiculous, which she does. But she also, as she must, succumbs at the end, and wishes him well on meeting his goal, if only he promises to hook up with her at deal’s end. Guess what: the movie needs to milk this situation for another 26 minutes of stuff to show, so there are complications and Miss Bitch on Wheels makes a return appearance and Matt considers falling for her again, but really wants to do right by Erica, and, of course, by his penis, and… and… oh jeez, “This is SOOO stupid!”

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.

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