The Opposite of Sex

Relax...don't do it: Josh Hartnett and Shannyn Sossamon in '40 Days and 40 Nights'
Miramax Films

Freud's "Screen Memories" aren't some form of cheap Hollywood nostalgia. In 1925, film producer Samuel Goldwyn offered the cigar-smoking mother-lover $100,000 if he'd collaborate on a melodrama about Anthony and Cleopatra. Freud refused. "I do not consider it possible to represent our abstractions graphically in any respectable manner," he explained, justifying the decision in a letter to his colleague Karl Abraham. Maybe Freud was right about the cinema of the early Twenties: Un Chien Andalou wouldn't be completed for a few years yet (neither would the first talkie), and the silent films of the times weren't exactly eager to document the entertainment industry's sublimation processes. If only Freud were alive today to view the teen movies of the 21st Century--those masterpieces of youthful neuroses in which girls will be girls and boys will...fuck pies.

If American Pie was an interpretation of dreams, creatively fulfilling its audience's forbidden hungers and Oedipal desires (fresh baked goods--just like Mom used to make!), then 40 Days and 40 Nights is a case study, offering a straight narrative (in both senses) of self-imposed sexual repression. It follows Matt Sullivan (Josh Hartnett), a guy who, after having some creepy daydreams in the midst of nookie, decides to give up sex for Lent. Although a date movie about abstinence sounds about as much fun as watching a rented porn tape with Joe Lieberman, 40 Days turns out to be a guilty pleasure. And I've discovered why: Hartnett is the perfect performer to pull this thing off.

After all, here's a 23-year-old actor from Minnesota whose films are already a tangle of Freudian hang-ups. In his first big-screen role, as John Tate of Halloween H20, Hartnett plays a boy who's stifled by the fanatical love of his overbearing mother (Jamie Lee Curtis). In The Faculty, he's a high school kid who flirts with his English teacher and has a thing for drug-filled ballpoint pens--ideal for both erotic displacement and writing essay exams. In his breakthrough role on the TV show Cracker, Hartnett is first seen with a troubled face, seated on the toilet. (Um, isn't the oral stage supposed to come first?) Now, in 40 Days, he's a victim of dementia. In a recent Premiere interview, Hartnett himself put it in strict psychological terms: "He's starting to have visions because he's deprived himself of a well-needed wank."

Even though Hartnett appears pasty, sweaty, and jumpy during the entire length of 40 Days and 40 Nights (supposedly that's what swearing off masturbation does to you), it isn't hard to guess that his fans will likely find him even more attractive. (As one Hartnett fan professes on a 40 Days chat room: "It is gonna be a lot of fun seeing him get all weak in the nuts and stuff--definitely a big turn on!!!" Huh?) His character's hindered libido provides the film with a great means of articulating what the perfect date movie should be: a strange amalgamation of the Boy Movie and the Girl Movie. On one side are countless Wonderbra-wearing women chasing Sullivan through San Francisco and Xeroxing their asses, while his male friends offer more masturbation jokes than you, shake a stick at. (Did all the gay men on Castro Street go into hibernation?) And on the other side is Sullivan's love interest: the scruffy, deep-voiced, and excruciatingly enticing Erica (Shannyn Sossamon), who never once praises the merits of chaste romance, and instead says true-to-life girl things like, "Arrrgh! Why won't he just have sex with me?"

The scenario is even funnier considering that it's loosely based on a true story: 40 Days screenwriter Rob Perez tried to give up sex for Lent himself one time. He never made it. (See Perez's sex diary on the 40 Days Web site.) But perhaps as a result of his trials with repressed lust, Perez has penned an abstinence comedy that perfectly illustrates Freud's Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. If Freud insists that humor is the indirect expression of obscenity--the satisfaction of a drive that cannot be satisfied--then 40 Days and 40 Nights doesn't need a graphic sex scene to pleasure its audience: Wordplay is its foreplay. Hence, every time Sullivan's roommate searches for a condom, claiming he needs "a Magnum...for my magnum," there's a relief from the psychic expenditure that the joke releases. Or, in other words: Slips of the tongue are a good substitute for our hero's slips of the tongue.

Where American Pie was not your mother's Oedipus complex, then 40 Days and 40 Nights is not your teenage brother's American Pie. Rather, it's an edgier, more frenetic sexual morality comedy, and one that comes with a disturbing climax--literally. But it's also a reminder that movies are a reversal of the rules dictated by a session on the couch: They take our known neuroses and convert them back into symbols and dreams. And they let the viewer-as-analyst fall in love with the character-as-case-study--a backward process of transference. In this case, it works. When you've got a jittery, hung-up stud as your object of desire, abstinence really does make the heart grow fonder.

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