Michael Lehmann has one of the most tumescent careers among mainstream directors. Beginning with his breakthrough film Heathers through the underappreciated absurdist action comedy Hudson Hawk, D.O.A. Airheads, modest hit The Truth About Cats & Dogs, and most recently, the Billy Crystal flop My Giant, Lehmann seems to be in this for the long haul but hardly a director to bank on. He's now settled in the middle with 40 Days and 40 Nights, a modest success financially and artistically.
A sitcom-y film that's often presposterous, 40 Days and 40 Nights asks the question, "Can a red-blooded, young American male survive over a month of utter celibacy?" (that's right, no self-gratification, either). In the process of answering this question, Lehmann tries just about everything: slapstick, gross-outs, fanatsy interludes, and even scenes of straight-faced erotica and straight-laced religion. The 40 days and 40 nights, you see, are the Lenten symbol of Christ's temptation and endurance in the desert. Half-hearted Catholic lothario Matt Sullivan (Josh Hartnett) decides to banish his relationship woes and clear his head with this vow of celibacy. Promptly thereafter, he meets the girl of his dreams (Shannon Sossamon), while his dot.com colleagues plot against him: the guys with an elaborate betting pool, the gals with slutty come-ons engineered to derail his efforts and reclaim the power center of sexual control.
The leads are attractive but not entirely up to the task of selling the tricky material, while Lehmann infuses the film with nervous energy (using jerky zooms) and gleaming San Francisco atmosphere. Hartnett gives it his all, but can't help coming across as thick. Sossamon's lovable earthiness fades with the script's manufactured conflicts, requiring her to be perpetually upset (at Matt's conversational omission of the vow, the vow itself, Matt's omission of his ex-girlfriend, the existence of his ex-girlfriend, and so on); her sourness is as often hard to understand as hard to believe. An affecting, creative sex scene (sans touching) finally redeems her character, just in time for the film to vilify Matt's ex, whose ultimate crime goes stupefyingly without redress.
Both women and men are presented as sex-obsessed, and few emerge unscathed. The men are sexually demanding predators and he-slaves. The women are objects of the men's irrepressible primal urges as well as power-hungry ballbreakers willing to whore themselves to stay on top. It's all pretty cynical for a film that's essentially a romance (with a religious undercurrent, no less), and what at first seems irreverent eventually becomes distasteful.
Despite it all, the film's glimmers of heart and sustained amusement, err...go down easy.