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40 Days and 40 Nights

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Jan
40 Days and 40 Nights
from Film Forum, 03/07/02

Hollywood is often accused—and found guilty—of presenting teen sex as a normal part of adolescence. Hollywood's figureheads often respond saying, "We're just telling it like it is." It's a classic chicken-or-the-egg dilemma—Are movies causing teenagers to believe this is acceptable behavior, or are these moviemakers merely reflecting the culture?

Surely the answer falls somewhere between the two extremes. But the arrival of Michael Lehmann's 40 Days and 40 Nights will certainly add fuel to the fire of those who blame Hollywood. The film tells the story of a popular senior whose girlfriend breaks up with him, and he responds with a series of one-night stands. Shockingly, he finds these exchanges to be unsatisfying. So he takes a vow of abstinence … for a little more than a month. Unthinkable? The movie treats his attempt as a ludicrous idea. But do most people agree that it's well-nigh impossible for a high schooler to go a month without sex? Has sex become so cheapened that abstinence has become a joke? If this movie is reflecting the experience of today's high schooler, we're in deep trouble.

I'd like to hear from you. Are the movies reflecting the realities of the contemporary high school experience? If so, which movies are most true? Have you seen any films that show admirable high schoolers? What are they? Write me here.

The folks who made 40 Days are responding to criticism with scorn, as if to say, "Hey, relax, it's only a comedy. We're not trying to be serious." But then again the star of the movie, teen idol Josh Hartnett, was recently asked by Yahoo if he had tried going a month without sex. He laughed and said he didn't think he could do it. Yahoo, indeed. What a role model. Hartnett deflected the criticism of religious filmgoers, claiming his Catholic grandmother thought the film was funny. Is Hartnett himself Catholic? "I'm kind of an ex-Catholic. I went to Catholic school. I really kind of have minimal religion right now. I'm kind of a spiritual person, but not all that religious."

Religious press critics are, as anticipated, very displeased with the film. The U,S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says, "Snickering at the Catholic Church's teaching on pre-marital sex … Lehmann's one-joke film exploits the holy season of Lent as a cynical pretext for abstinence."

Phil Boatwright writes, "40 Days is one long sex joke aimed to arouse the viewer as much as the film's protagonist."

Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) remarks, "40 Days and 40 Nights does nothing more than celebrate illicit sex by, among other things, demonstrating how intolerable life is without it. That's a boldface lie, but it's a lie that a lot of folks have given in to."

Mainstream critics dismissed the film as empty-headed. Roger Ebert gives the director Michael Lehmann some credit, saying he "has a sympathy for his characters that elevates the story above the level of a sexual sitcom. He uses humor as an instrument to examine human nature, just as he did in the wonderful, underrated The Truth About Cats and Dogs. Amazing, what a gulf there is between movies about characters governed by their genitals, and this movie about a character trying to govern his genitals." But he argues that the ending of the film is unfortunate, disappointing, and even offensive.

Regardless of these widespread critical condemnations, the movie took second place at the box office this week. Parents, did you let your kids go see it? If so, you might want to talk to them and find out if they found it true to their own experience.

from Film Forum, 03/14/02

Peter T. Chattaway, occasional media writer for Books & Culture, Christianity Today, and Canadian Christianity, has an article in The Vancouver Sun this week on 40 Days and 40 Nights. Chattaway is troubled by the way this film, like so many, portrays sexual abstinence as ludicrous and well-nigh impossible. His complaint "is not that it exaggerates the significance of sex, but that it does so to the point where sex seems to eclipse just about every other way of relating to people. Abstinence becomes just another way to kink sex up, as Matt and his new girlfriend look for loopholes in his vow of chastity, which is due to expire in a few weeks anyway. The film plays on the notion that life without sex is untenable. But honestly, for some of us at least, it isn't all that bad."

I planted my foot—or rather, my keyboard—in my mouth last week when I described 40 Days and 40 Nights as being about a high school senior. I apologize—I was going on second-hand information this time around and failed to double-check my facts. Apparently, the main character is older, college-age, and thus my questions about the film's accuracy in portraying high school life were rather off the mark.

However, I did receive several differing responses from high schoolers, affirming that yes, sexual activity among their peers is troublingly frequent. In their experience, classmates not only engage in regular sexual escapades, but also ridicule those who abstain.

It was nice, though, to see one student write, "I am a 17-year old high school junior, and … most movies that I have seen do not reflect high school for me. My friends and I do not have constant sex, we are not made fun of because of that, and we are not embarrassed." She argues that the truly embarrassing thing is the way that movies portray high schoolers.

Mike Clawson writes in, "I don't find that most teen movies portray positive values. One teen movie that I found to be highly entertaining and which had a positive message worked into it was 10 Things I Hate About You, a clever and funny adaptation of Shakespeare's' Taming of the Shrew. Furthermore, as the story develops we get to hear a main character (Kat) openly discuss the negative consequences of deciding to give up her virginity. Other parts of the movie show the negative side effects of excessive drinking, and positively portray characters who make their own decisions based on their personal values rather than just following the crowd. 10 Things certainly isn't a morality tale, but it is a funny movie with an overall virtuous message."

"What irritates me most," writes Rick de Geier, "is the quasi-moralistic message these movies always end with—'Sex is fun, and it's okay to experiment with it, but good buddies are more important'—as if that makes everything all right. … I don't turn to movies for answers to my problems, but to be moved by honest, happy or sad stories. What I look for is realism. I enjoy a realistic character far better than a hero who hardly shows any weakness."

He recommends the Swedish film Show Me Love, "about a 15-year old nerdy girl who falls in love with the coolest girl from her class, somewhere in a boring Swedish suburb. They're shown kissing once or twice, but the movie isn't about homosexuality, it's about the hopes and insecurities of young teenagers. The way they can be both sincerely sweet and exceptionally cruel toward each other. I haven't seen 15-year olds portrayed more realistic in any other movie I've seen. It's quite tragic, but it's so much more honest than all this American Pie trash.

"Another recent film about teens I really enjoyed was Ghost World. It was very dark, but again—honest. I felt like I knew the two cynical girls who seem to be living in a dumb, insane place, because that's how I felt when I was a teen in my own little alternative subculture. The way they hated everything around them was maybe not 'Christian' or 'admirable', but it was so recognizable to me that I thought it was terribly funny and sad at the same time. The movie definitely has a message: negativity will make you bitter and lonely. I like the fact that the movie doesn't have a happy end, but does show a bit of hope for the characters at the end (just like in real life)."

from Film Forum, 03/28/02

Film Forum covered the arrival of the disturbing sex comedy 40 Days and 40 Nights a few weeks back, but critics are still chiming in with their various complaints. Simon Remark (Chiaroscuro) offers a new review this week. He says, "40 Days and 40 Nights was almost an intelligent, profound, even transcendent film. Almost. Instead of focusing on the rewarding aspects of celibacy, connecting with another human being on a more substantial level, the movie only focuses on the fact that our protagonist and his new love can't live without sex. While I was entertained throughout much of the movie, I was disappointed with the message and outcome. If only Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy, Dogma) had made this movie, maybe it would have dealt with the protagonist's spiritual struggle and the various complexities of relationships formed under unusual circumstances."