A broad comedy about a man’s man who evolves into a woman’s man, “What Women Want” boasts an irresistible central conceit that more often than not is used for oafishly boisterous gags and squirm-inducing “sensitive man” wish fulfillment. With a manic Mel Gibson, only now starring in his first romantic comedy, playing an incorrigible seducer who temporarily becomes endowed with the ability to hear women’s uncensored thoughts, Nancy Meyers’ second directorial outing has sheer energy and audience allure to burn, even if numerous speed bumps cause many of the comic possibilities to go tumbling overboard. Well-upholstered Paramount release is a near-perfect example of a film with heavy appeal to women that men will be willing to go along to as well, a formula that spells heavy B.O. with the mainstream public everywhere.
Usually cast in serious macho roles with the occasional soft streak (as in his most recent action epic, “The Patriot”), Gibson begins clearing a promising path for himself here as an unapologetic womanizer who’s never willing to take no for an answer. Playing a man who’s cocky, irrepressible, wild, crazy and always hot to trot, Gibson throws himself into even the most preposterous situations with such relish and abandon that the viewer, like most of the women, has little choice but to succumb to him, despite the prankish nature of what he’s required to play. As Robert De Niro has shown over the past couple of years, there’s a huge upside to developing one’s comic potential, and there’s no question that Gibson (whose company, after all, produced the recent Three Stooges telepic) could go far in this direction as he graduates from straight leading man status.
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Amusingly introduced as the son of a Vegas showgirl who has always enjoyed the fawning attention of beautiful women, Nick Marshall (Gibson) is now a hotshot Chicago ad exec with an ex-wife (Lauren Holly) who’s marrying again and a 15-year-old daughter, Alex (Ashley Johnson), whose top priority is losing her virginity. Fully expecting a promotion at work, Nick is taken aback when his boss (Alan Alda) informs him that, to help the firm target the all-important young female demographic, he’s instead hired the estimable Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt) to put their shop back on top.
Asked by Darcy to come up with suggestions for a new, femme-slanted campaign, Nick gets drunk in his penthouse apartment, dances around and immerses himself in what it’s like to be a woman by waxing his legs, polishing his nails and trying on pantyhose and a Wonder Bra — only to be caught in flagrante, so to speak, by an aghast Alex and her b.f. Sequence is shameless, to be sure, but sets off gales of laughter due to the way it plays off of Gibson’s ultra-macho image — and simply because the star is so game.
Episode concludes in the “Twilight Zone”-ish bathroom accident that sets up the big gimmick in Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa’s script: To his initial dismay but eventual delight, Nick finds, “I hear what women think.” The dismay, as it turns out, is pretty superficial, taking the form of Nick’s learning that there are actually some women out there who think he’s a jerk. The delight, of course, is much more profound, as a shrink (Bette Midler in an uncredited cameo) for some reason has to explain to him, “If you know what women want, you can rule.”
Before long, Nick is putting his advantage to good use at the office, throwing Darcy off-guard by telling her exactly what she’s thinking before she has a chance to say it, and by almost literally picking her brain for creative ideas that make him look like a genius. By this method, he figures, he’ll make sure that she’s out on the street within a month.
Nick’s new-found insight and intuition have innumerable other benefits. He’s finally able to break down the resistance of vibrant coffee-shop girl Lola (Marisa Tomei) and entice her into a sexual tryst that goes way beyond what she could have imagined, while he also becomes attentive to the plight of office wallflower Erin (Judy Greer), whose depressive, suicidal tendencies would have gone unnoticed without Nick’s clairvoyance. And then there’s one of the film’s funniest gags, in which Nick waits to discern the inner thoughts of his two zaftig assistants (Delta Burke and Valerie Perrine).
Alex, forced to stay at Nick’s bachelor pad while Mom is away honeymooning, is initially freaked out by her dad’s new and uncomfortable interest in her personal life, although she doesn’t object when he offers to take her shopping for a prom dress. Nick’s makeover into the model sensitive male is also duly noted by Darcy, who, after all, is one of those high-powered single professional women who knows how lonely it is at the top and needs someone to keep her warm in her lavish new apartment.
At work, Nick triumphs over Darcy, but what an electric jolt giveth, an electric jolt taketh away, and when Nick loses his powers, the film doesn’t know what to do other than to come in for a very soft landing and putter to an indifferent stop.
Meyers underlines, boldfaces and italicizes every scene, then applies a high-gloss finish so that no one in the audience could possibly miss a single line, effect or intention. In storytelling terms, pic gets off to a bumpy start, clicks pretty nicely when Nick and Darcy begin to click in the middle stretch, then falls off again. But Gibson seems all but inflated with helium throughout, which contagiously lifts everyone else around him, and Hunt’s more earthbound pragmatism plays well off of her co-star’s buoyancy. Tomei shoots off some amusingly unpredictable sparks as a woman who finds Nick uniquely probing.
Production designer Jon Hutman lavishes the settings with well-moneyed details that are appreciatively caught by Dean Cundey’s silky lensing. Attractive Chicago locations are used to fine effect.