A different kind of sex comedy
Hollywood often receives criticism for the morality (or lack thereof) it portrays in movies, and few are more notorious than that odd creation of the past few years, the teen-oriented sex comedy. However, 40 Days and 40 Nights is an interesting and unexpected twist on the sex comedy genre. It's not about teens and it has abstinence (temporary, at least) as its theme. (It's been done before; Aristophanes' Lysistrata comes to mind, but that was 2500 years ago!)
Not surprisingly, 40 Days and 40 Nights is a far different story from Lysistrata. The concerns are modern, the issues more serious, and the setting is-somewhat, at least, Christian. Christian?! A Christian sex comedy? I wouldn't blame you for thinking that I'm joking, but 40 Days is about the sexual angst of a young man in San Francisco, Matt Sullivan, played by Josh Hartnett (Pearl Harbor, Black Hawk Down), who happens to be a Christian, although his faith is far from control of his life. Matt has suffered a devastating breakup, and like many people (Christians included), does not know how to regain his grip on life. An early scene shows Matt in a confessional, describing that he feels he's falling into “a black hole.”
Matt longs for love, but like many people, he settles for sex. His breakup with Nicole has left him floundering, and he covers his pain with sex, using weekly sexual flings as a drug. After six months, the meaninglessness is beginning to take its toll, and the “black hole” of his addictive behavior is leading to a crisis.
Matt visits his brother (a Catholic seminarian) at church on the first day of Lent and has a revelation: Since this is the start of Lent, the season of repentance, self-examination, and sacrifice to identify with Jesus' temptations in the desert, he will give up sex for Lent. Not just “sex” alone, but all sexual activity, period: hugging, kissing, pornography, self-gratification. (This actually is the course of treatment used by sex-addiction 12-step groups.)
Having made a sacred vow, Matt steps out of the church feeling peace for the first time in months. A heavenly light shines on him, Jesus smiles at him, and Mary gives him an approving wink. And Matt is going to need all of this grace, because his vow is suddenly going to become very tough to fulfill: he is about to meet the woman of his dreams, Erica, (Shannon Sossamon, A Knight's Tale). Furthermore, it's quite an understatement to say he does not get any help from his friends: in fact, they begin betting that he'll fail, which leads to some hilarious scenes.
An honest portrayal of religion and sexuality
Although this isn't a "religious" movie per se, it has some of the most natural religious conversations I've ever seen in a theater, including talking about Jesus. There once was a time when the name of Jesus couldn't even be mentioned even in "religious" movies. (Remember Bing Crosby as a priest in The Bells of St. Mary's and Going My Way? There was little mention of God, and Jesus was completely unmentionable. In fact, in the latter movie, the priest actually had to say “Santa Claus believes in you” as a euphemism for God!) In 40 Days, Matt, his parents, his brother, and even his roommate talk freely and comfortably about their personal lives, from God and Jesus, to romance and sexuality.
This willingness (at least at the beginning) to treat the spiritual and sexual sides of life together is the most original aspect of 40 Days. We are all simultaneously spiritual and sexual beings, and many of us live in some degree of tension between the two. Due to the relentless "sexual evangelization" of society, young people (like Matt) are increasingly choosing to consider their bodies' urges before moral teachings, and often (like Matt), experience severe and needless suffering because of it.
Another difference of this movie is a willingness to treat the light and dark sides of sexuality simultaneously. Matt's parents describe their satisfaction with their sex lives and consider it a gift of God. On the other hand, there is an illustration of the danger of confusing sex and love. When Erica, who can't conceive of love without sex, tries to seduce Josh, who prefers to abstain, it causes him great anguish, and touches on the selfishness inherent in creating that pressure. Other scenes show the entirely selfish attitudes of seduction without love, and the violation of sex without consent. The difficulty of celibacy within the Church also comes up.
. . . with a formulaic ending
Yet in the end, 40 Days not only shies away from its initial challenges to a sex-obsessed culture, but gives in with a vengeance. I would've loved for it to end with Matt taking Erica to church on Easter Sunday, but our friends in Hollywood weren't feeling that adventurous, and unfortunately the actual ending undercuts almost all the potential which came before. That said, it still is one very funny movie. (One technical oversight: the director doesn't seem to know that Lent is the period from Ash Wednesday to Easter. The festive decorations in the church for “the first day of Lent” weren't appropriate to Ash Wednesday. And though Lent is called the “forty days,” it actually is forty-six days long.)
(A slightly different version of this review is mirrored on the Hollywood Jesus website.)