What Women Want

Men and women are very different, and each gender often doesn’t know what the other is thinking! That’s the earth-shattering message expressed so cutely in “What Women Want,” a soft romantic comedy focusing on a man, but made for women.

Directed by Nancy Meyers (who I think might actually be Nora Ephron, especially with this film’s reliance on Sinatra-era music), “What Women Want” stars Mel Gibson as Nick Marshall, a sexist Chicago advertising wizard who suddenly finds himself with the ability to hear women’s thoughts.

This comes after an electric shock, which comes when Nick, depressed and drunk over a woman getting the promotion he wanted, tries on a bunch of women’s products he’s supposed to come up with ad campaigns for and then falls into the bathtub while holding a hair dryer.

Is it funny to see Mel Gibson in panty hose? Well, certainly. Is it funny to see Nick Marshall wild-eyed and blithering when he realizes that every woman he knows thinks he’s a chauvinistic pig? For a minute or two.

The real comedy is after that, when Nick realizes how great a power this can be. If he knows what women want, he can have sex with all of them. (Of course, if he knows what women want, he’ll know that sex isn’t the only thing on their minds.) He’ll also be able to come up with ideas for ads for lipstick and women’s running shoes — ideas that actually belong to the aforementioned man-eating executive, Darcy McGuire (Helen Hunt). He starts undermining Darcy’s career at the ad firm, while also falling in love with her.

His sabotage is so subtle, though, that not only is Darcy unaware of it, but the audience seems to be left out, too. We see the scheme occur to him, and a few brief instances of him employing it … and then nothing. That and a few other details (like Nick’s office buddy, Morgan, played by Mark Feuerstein, who disappears suddenly after the first half-hour) get lost in the shuffle.

The result is that about half-way through the film, you realize there’s no conflict. The novelty of Nick’s fun super-power has worn off, and you start trying to focus on the plot instead … and you realize there isn’t one. Keeping Nick from being too vicious in his plan to steal Darcy’s job keeps him from being a despicable character, but it also waters down a lot of potentially good conflicts, plot twists and dilemmas.

A lot of comic potential goes untapped, too, right up to the the last minute, when the film ends with a kiss rather than a joke. A woman smokes pot in Nick’s presence. What will her drug-impaired thoughts be? The movie skips it. A woman calls Nick on the phone. How will he know the difference between what she’s saying and what she’s just thinking? He is mildly confused twice, and then she apparently doesn’t have any more thoughts after that.

(One joke that is great is when Nick encounters his two fawning and vacuous secretaries. They say a few things, and then he waits, listening for their thoughts. And there are none. Just as you would guess from looking at them, they really ARE just standing there, absolutely nothing on their minds.)

Mel Gibson is altogether charming as Nick. He’s not the least bit convincing as a politically incorrect cad; fortunately, he only has to do it for a few minutes before he gets zapped. The rest of the time, he’s affable and friendly. He’s entirely too old to be a swinging bachelor, and the film has its flaws, but darned if you don’t like him and it anyway.

Helen Hunt, elegant and smart as always, holds her own with the powerhouse that is Mel Gibson. I’m guessing what women want is this movie, and men won’t mind it too much either. We critics, well, we have to point out its shortcomings. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t mostly enjoy ourselves.

B- (; PG-13, heavy profanity, some very strong sexuality and other sexual innuendo and vulgarity.)