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In Denial 

Heartthrob Josh Hartnett temporarily gives up sex--and his hopes for a serious film career

As evidenced by the escalating conflict between Nightline and Late Night, network television is the province of the young. Letterman's 19- to 34-year-old demographic guarantees higher advertising rates and, therefore, dictates programming choices.

The same demographic serves as the target audience and object of satire for 40 Days and 40 Nights, directed by Michael Lehmann (Heathers; The Truth About Cats and Dogs). Not surprisingly, the film bears more than a passing resemblance to sitcoms about young, white, urban singles. Its spacious, vegetable-colored San Francisco apartments and workplaces resemble the set of Friends, spruced up by a fashionably color-blind decorator, and its sexual denial plot borrows from the classic Seinfeld "master of your domain" episode, which remains the master of its domain. In one unsuccessful bid to shake off the stigma of the small screen, the film even opens with references to Hitchcock's Vertigo. The rumbling from the war flick in the adjoining theater might have been the portly master spinning in his grave.

In 40 Days, teen heartthrob Josh Hartnett plays Matt Sullivan, a young man of dubious substance surrounded by repulsive, unfunny people. He lives with an inexplicably hostile roommate, and his dot-com co-workers fall neatly into two camps: fabulous-looking women who wear fishnet stockings and thigh boots below their miniskirts, and unattractive men who thrive on gossip from the bagel delivery man.

It's disappointing that a promising actor like Hartnett, destined to have numerous star vehicles yoked to his muscular back, seems to have enrolled in the Keanu Reeves Actor's Workshop. As stoner Zeke Tyler in The Faculty and dreamy Trip Fontaine in The Virgin Suicides, Hartnett tapped the mischievous energy of Tom Cruise, minus Cruise's arrogance. Maybe he's still shell-shocked from Pearl Harbor and Black Hawk Down, but in this film he trudges--earnest but uncomprehending--through each scene, a cipher to everyone, including himself.

After his girlfriend Nicole (Vinessa Shaw) breaks up with him, Matt suffers from Repulsion-like delusions: When he has sex with women, cracks appear in the ceiling, above which a black hole looms. Without getting too Freudian, let's just say that, unlike Catherine Deneuve, who had the good filmic taste to start stabbing people when the cracked plaster got to her, Matt decides to give up sex for Lent.

In keeping with the movie's commitment to the pseudo-science of evolutionary biology, Matt's male co-workers take bets on how long he can last, then publicize his celibacy vow on the Internet. Meanwhile, his female co-workers hatch subtle plans to seduce him (some of which involve photocopied body parts and girl-on-girl sex shows in the stockroom). The women, it seems, are pissed off that he's usurped the "power" of saying no. Ex-girlfriend Nicole even goes so far as to sexually assault Matt in an attempt to deny him that "power."

The plot thickens (and, no, the film never rises to the level of low pun) when Matt's vow jeopardizes his new relationship with Erica (Shannyn Sossamon). Pleasantly disheveled and wearing sexily bohemian low-slung trousers when she's not swathed in J. Jill, Erica is no bitchy social climber like Nicole. To be fair, Sossamon--a petite Angelina Jolie without the undertones of blood sacrifice--delivers a respectable performance. She's believable as a person whose company someone would enjoy, even when they're not having sex with her. This is a concept the film struggles with mightily, even as it attempts to satirize characters who can't grasp the notion of relationships.

At film's end, it's not the predictable treatment of our culture's hetero-sex obsession that most rankles, but the indifference of the film's characters to both emotional connection and sexual pleasure. In the name of satire, 40 Days and 40 Nights dishes up contrived conflicts, casual homophobia, and feeble attempts to leaven its vile sexual politics with misguided humor. If you're looking for something to give up for Lent, start with this film. EndBlock

More by Maria Pramaggiore

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