With more than 20 years in the business, it's hard to believe that "What Women Want" (IMDb listing) is Mel Gibson's first foray into romantic comedy. In 1990 he took a half-hearted stab at the genre with "Bird on a Wire," but that film's unnecessary action sequences gave the star a safety net if the romance fizzled. The only acton in what "What Women Want" is of the bump-and-grind variety no guns, no car chases, not even a rousing speech. Without those guy-pleasing, budget-busting elements, Gibson is stripped to his charm and skill, and he uses them masterfully. Ladies and gentleman, it's time to meet Mel Gibson: Romantic Lead.
As Nick Marshall, Gibson is a hot-shot, Chicago ad exec who steamrolls the ad industry with his chauvinistic style. For Nick, ads are all about boobs and product placement (in that order), and for years his campaigns have sold countless bottles of vodka and cartons of cigarettes. But times have changed and Nick's once high-flying agency is falling behind because it can't appeal to women. In short, it doesn't know what women want.
Enter Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt), a rival hired to fill the creative director position Nick covets. Darcy charges in, true to her "man-eating bitch" reputation, and forces Nick and his complacent co-workers to think about women's needs. Armed with boxes of women's products, Darcy challenges her new employees to develop campaigns that will inspire women to buy.
For Nick, thinking like a woman is torture. He's the anti-woman; a Sinatra-loving guy's guy who
subconsciously sprinkles his vocabulary with "babe" and "broad." But Nick is also ultra-competitive, so he meets Darcy's challenge with the vigor of a battle-ready warrior. In a raucous scene, Nick guzzles wine and samples each item in Darcy's box of products. It's a swirl of bath beads, pantyhose, Wonder bras, and lipstick reaching a high point when Nick goes to war with a container of scalding, demonic leg wax. Nick's search for inspiration is heroic, but the mix of wine and testosterone block the path. To persevere, Nick needs a life-changing event, which conveniently occurs when Nick, a hair dryer, and a water-filled bathtub converge later that night.
The next morning, Nick wakes on the bathroom floor, frazzled, fried, and hung over, but also in possession of a skill all men would kill for: The ability to hear what women are thinking. What ensues is standard fare. An hour-and-a-half storyline that shows Nick denying his mind-reading skill, embracing it with selfish designs, then ultimately using it to bring comfort and genuine love to the women in his life. Like all romantic comedies, the film's outcome is predictable, but the ride is what's important and "What Women Want" makes that ride enjoyable.
What's odd is that "What Women Want" will be known for its significance in changing Gibson's career rather than its merits as a film. It's a solid piece of work, but it lacks the extra push, that heart-thumping moment that vaults it into the pantheon of romantic comedies. "Sleepless in Seattle" had it, "When Harry Met Sally" had a lot of it, "What Women Want" comes close, but there's no afterglow. It's a nice movie, but it won't fill you with intense romantic longing and bountiful thoughts of how good the world can be.
The reason it misses is simple: Helen Hunt. Just like the film, she's "nice." She's capable, she looks good, she's got her moments, but she doesn't entice the audience and because of that you never really understand why Gibson's character falls for her. My girlfriend, upon seeing Hunt's Oscar-winning turn in "As Good As it Gets," noted that Hunt never showed us why her character was so remarkable. Why were these men falling over her? The same question holds true in "What Women Want."
The supporting players are also lacking. Delta Burke, Alan Alda, Mark Feuerstein, Lauren Holly, and Marisa Tomei are mere props. The supporting cast is vital to the success of a romantic comedy because they provide depth and nuance to the film. If "Notting Hill" had relied solely on Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts to fuel its engines, it would have fizzled after 10 minutes. To Gibson's credit, he propels "What Women Want" through two hours, but the film needs two or three quirky peripheral characters to really work.
Despite its flaws, "What Women Want" is worth seeing. Gibson's performance is funny and likable and the story has good intentions. It won't ignite your passions, but it'll leave romantics of both genders with a temporary lighthearted feeling. For that alone, it deserves to be seen.
Filmfodder Grade: B