What Women Want

Directed by Nancy Meyers
Written by Josh Goldsmith, Cathy Yuspa
Starring Mel Gibson, Helen Hunt


What Women Want

"What Women Want" is probably mistitled, because it's a lot more about what men want. What men want is to know what women are thinking, either to get into their pants, to pick their brains before they know they've been picked, or to anticipate trouble -- male-female trouble -- and head it off.

Here classic male chauvinist pig/thoughtless boss/offensively egocentric Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson at his best, in his unique screen icon mode of flashing eyes, irresistible smile in a mobile face, gorgeous baritone voice and perfect timing for comic double-takes) is about to be named creative director of his Chicago ad agency, when his boss (Alan Alda) chooses to hire Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt) away from another agency for the job. Putting a good face on it but intending to undercut her at every step, Nick goes home with his assignment from her: Open the box of women's products she's given him and try to find appeals for those products -- pantyhose, Advil, deodorant, and the like -- that will speak to what women really want to hear.

Nick is divorced, has barely any relationship with his 15-year-old daughter Alex (Ashley Johnson in a perfect performance, sulky, bright, angry and loving all at once), and has engendered the hidden loathing of most women in his office. So the night of his assignment, in a fortunate/unfortunate moment, he accidently zaps himself in the bathtub with his hairdryer and lo and behold, he can now hear the unspoken thoughts of women.

For Nick this is not an unmixed blessing. Although he can read Hunt's mind and steal her ideas before she can express them -- good, initially -- he now can also hear the frank assessments of his loathsome acts and attitudes that would normally go unheard -- very bad. He even takes himself to a psychiatrist (Bette Midler in an unbilled cameo that is the wittiest single sequence in the film), and ultimately comes to know himself more honestly, find common ground with Hunt, and build a relationship with his daughter. Though we know all this will happen, and though the film sometimes makes us wait while it slowly works through little plot twists, it is still more amusing and thoughtful than we might have expected.

The Hunt-Gibson relationship here is not in any way reminiscent of the classic screen battles between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Hunt does not show the acerbic wit that made those films work. She is instead what you might call the perfect woman; that is, she is knowledgeable, mature, talented, bright, insightful, sexy and caring. And Gibson is both the asshole redeemed and the repressed do-gooder lying in wait for the right moment to emerge. The film, which begins as a mechanical device designed to run on Gibson's screen energy, adds texture and depth as it goes along, to end on an appropriately satisfying romantic note. Written with a modicum of wit by Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa, and directed in workmanlike manner by Nancy Meyers, the film evaporates quickly from the mind, but like good popcorn it's tasty as long as it lasts.    

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