- The Washington Times - Friday, March 1, 2002

It might have been gratifying to be a movie executive for a day in order to toss the screenplay of "40 Days and 40 Nights" out the nearest open window. Or, at an earlier juncture, show screenwriter Robert Perez the door about 30 seconds into his "pitch."

Having insinuated its way through the system, with the triple-duty sponsorship of Universal, Miramax and the European distribution giant Studio Canal, "40 Days" is now poised to delight spectators who relish the concept of potentially appealing and amusing young performers yoked to sex farce at its most grotesque and moronic.

To be fair, "40 Days" isn't the worst of all conceivable insults. It will look downright sparkling in retrospect when something called "National Lampoon's Van Wilder" gets into circulation in a matter of weeks.

Nevertheless, there is something almost criminally presumptuous about expecting either a cast or paying customers to humor the premise that keeps Josh Hartnett tied in knots for a whimsically foreshortened and frustrating 40 days and nights in San Francisco, impersonating a lovelorn young man named Matt who works for a Web design company and takes a vow of celibacy as Lent begins after being heartlessly discarded by a cutthroat girlfriend named Nicole (Vinessa Shaw).

This less than herculean feat of self-denial, expanded for the sake of ruthless jocularity to include any and all forms of tactile arousal, from the merest goodnight kiss to frenzied, solitary masturbation, supposedly hits a snag when Matt is attracted to a young woman who frequents the same Laundromat.

Called Erica and embodied by Shannyn Sossamon, the curiously exotic, amateurish newcomer cast as a princess in "A Knight's Tale," this token temptress has a job that is, I think, new to the screen and likely to discourage a promiscuous sex life: she patrols porn Web sites for a service called Cybernanny, which will purge the unwanted stuff from home computers for offended and apprehensive customers.

Matt's scheme has leaked to co-workers, who begin a mocking office pool that gets into Internet circulation and attracts the notice of Erica, who hasn't been taken into his confidence after a couple of shy dates.

There's no particular reason to believe that she'd freak when informed of the basic motive: to get Nicole thoroughly out of his system. Especially when importuned by an actor who can bleed sincerity as earnestly as Mr. Hartnett.

But to keep a semblance of nincompoopish conflict in play, the script pretends that Erica is too overheated to wait out the remaining 18 days or whatever of the poor galoot's penance.

Ultimately, the filmmakers are so desperate that they have to finagle Nicole back into the plot, for an 11th hour assault on Matt's hard-earned virtue. You kind of wince for the principals, not to mention supporting players who also have to kick in with humiliating demonstrations of sexual abandon or derangement.

Here's an example that helps to date the movie instantly: a Viagra capsule crushed into a cup of orange juice and meant for Matt in order to break his resistance on a particular day is consumed by his boss Jerry, played by Griffin Dunne, who pretends to be a jibbering satyr in follow-up episodes.

The lack of urgency that afflicts the designated crisis makes it easy for attention to wander. Sideburns appear to be making a considerable comeback in guys who work around Matt or room with him, in the case of Paulo Costanzo as wiseacre best friend Ryan.

Miss Sossamon is more relaxed in front of the camera but still doesn't sound like she has an acting career in mind.

Mr. Hartnett works rather too hard to remind you that he takes the vocation very seriously, even when the property is busy making him look like a chump.

There are some amusing players on the periphery, especially Michael Maronna, recently an asset to "Slackers." Looking entirely different, he brightens up all his scenes as a motormouth hipster known as Bagel Guy.

Michael Lehmann, who seemed to be a cutting-edge virtuoso when he directed "Heathers," only to deflate rapidly after abetting the terminally smug "Hudson Hawk," makes a concerted attempt to outwit the script's stupidities with a modish facade and playful temperament. The most he can guarantee in the way of clever distraction is some flattering attention to Mr. Maronna and the snappiest members of the ensemble.

Maybe San Francisco itself is in a bit of a slump. The city's scenic advantages were agreeably evident in Garry Marshall's "The Princess Diaries." But they don't help much to romanticize a conception as coarse-minded as "40 Days and 40 Nights."

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