Dir: Michael Lehmann. US. 2002. 95mins.

Stripping the military uniform that he valiantly wore in his last two screen roles (Pearl Harbor and Black Hawk Down) for sexier civilian clothes in his new romantic comedy proves to be a good idea for broadening the appeal of fast-rising star Josh Hartnett among his young female constituency. Never mind that the romantic romp is based on a single, tiny idea - a hunk abstaining from sex for the duration of Lent - extended to the limits of a feature-length picture. Equipped with enough ammo to make this Miramax/Universal co-production a hot date movie for both male and female viewers, the cutely titled 40 Days And 40 Nights should benefit from being the only major romantic comedy in the marketplace at the moment. Miramax would have scored better if 40 Days were released earlier on Valentines Day or a bit later during schools' spring break. As it is, US domestic gross over the weekend generated a satisfying $13m in 2,225 sites.

Reversing the central idea that has dominated youth sex comedies of the past decade - how to score fast with as many beautiful girls as possible until one meets the right one - 40 Days is just as slick, verbose and commercially calculated as American Pie, its sequel, and numerous other comedies that have exploited the hormonal needs of yuppies.

Dumped by his gorgeous sweetheart, Nicole (Shaw), Matt Sullivan, a San Francisco computer whiz, is so devastated that at first he embarks on a series of one night stands. To punctuate their point, these mostly-unsatisfactory encounters are seen in the by-now obligatory montages, accompanied to rousing music. During one rendezvous, has a nightmare of the ceiling cracking and crashing all over him; during another, he even fakes orgasm to get it over with quickly. Soon he is confessing to his priest brother, John (Trese), who inspires him to look at the upcoming Lent as a real opportunity to change his life in order to cure himself of his obsession with Nicole and regain command over his emotions. The saga's structure unfolds with the days left until Lent's end, each counted by Matt with considerable pain, each involving resisting temptation from sexy co-workers wearing miniskirts and high heels.

All goes well and Matt resists temptation until a routine visit to the local laundrette, where he meets Erica (Sossamon), a beautiful and intelligent woman, who takes a different kind of interest in him. The two begin dating, but unaware of his abstinence vow, Erica is perplexed by Matt's mysterious, atypically reserved male conduct when it comes to the bedroom.

Unlike most romantic comedies, which often enjoy a good set-up and a workable beginning, but then quickly deteriorate and recycle their single idea over and over again, 40 Days actually improves as it goes along, and screenwriter Robert Perez comes up with some bright and occasionally funny insights. Ryan (Costanzo), Matt's crass co-worker, violates their friendship and before long Matt's celibacy is all over the Internet, making him a celeb of sorts.

Aware of the material's structural limitations - this is, after all, a date picture - director Lehmann stages an erotic scene between Matt and Erica during Lent, in which the major prop is a white orchid, with which Matt caresses Erica gently, causing an unexpectedly exciting orgasm. Set in a beautiful San Francisco, a city already mythic in its romantic imagery, 40 Days may promote laundrettes as the new public romantic sites, and white orchid as the flower of choice (in lieu of roses).

Though not exactly a gross-out comedy a la Farrelly, 40 Days also displays its own share of sexual toys and tools. There's a whimsical scene, when Matt and his boss (played by a dishevelled Griffin Dunne) realise they are next-door neighbours in the men's room, both equipped with girlie magazines and bottles of oil in their effort to alleviate themselves of unbearable libidinal pressures. There's also a love potion, an orange juice with Viagra in it, which, of course, is taken by the wrong person with some hilarious results.

Lehmann, who a decade ago made the delectable nasty comedy Heathers and then the disastrous Hudson Hawk, followed by a string of semi-successful or disappointing films, such as Meet The Applegates and The Truth About Cats & Dogs, still lacks the technical skill to make a smoothly suave and witty romantic comedy. But he does understand that the challenge of making an effective love story is not bringing the lovers together, but finding inventive (and plausible) ways of delaying their inevitable, last-moment reunion. At the very least, Lehmann should get credit for not trying to revive the cornball of old-fashioned Hollywood chestnuts, as is the norm of most romantic comedies, instead trying to integrate new modes of communications, such as the Internet and other timely ideas, into the yarn.

Tall and handsome, with smart eyes that may be too deep-set to register strongly onscreen, Hartnett is an appealing actor who, at this juncture of his career, has shown limited expressiveness in both comedies and dramas (he was miscast in the Iago role in O, Tim Blake Nelson's modern adaptation of Othello). Hartnett may or may not become a major serious actor, but he shows healthy signs of development as a star. At 23, he's younger than Ben Affleck and Matt Damon by almost a decade, and hence occupies a much-needed niche as the new heartthrob, now that Tom Cruise is pushing 40 and Brad Pitt is not far behind. Hartnett strikes as an open-minded actor who will benefit from the sheer experience of working on diverse projects.

Not neglecting the male viewers, the filmmakers have populated 40 Days with at least a dozen babes, one more sexy and voluptuous than the other, so there's plenty to look at for viewers of both genders. But Hartnett deserves better than the leading lady he gets here, Shannyn Sossamon, who made a slight impression in A Knight's Tale. Attractive in a cold, model-like manner, she's too stiff, even when her characters needs to defrost.

Lenser Eliott Davis gives 40 Days a crisp, colourful look that takes full advantage of its varied San Francisco locations. The picture is graced with one priceless Fellinesque sequence, in which a painfully horny Matt, toward the end of the Lent, sees himself flying across a wonderfully blue sky over chains of mountains that are made of huge women's breasts.

Prod co: Miramax Films/Universal Pictures/Studio Canal presentation of a Working Title production
Int'l dist: Universal
Exec prods: Lisa Chasin, Debra Hayward
Prods: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Michael London
Scr: Robert Perez
Cinematography: Elliot Davis
Prod des: Sharon Seymour
Ed: Nicholas C Smith
Music: Rolfe Kent
Main cast: Josh Hartnett, Shannyn Sossamon, Paulo Costanzo, Adam Trese, Griffin Dunne, Vinessa Shaw