In, amazingly, the first romantic comedy of his career, Mel Gibson (2000's
"The Patriot") fits perfectly within the framework of director Nancy Meyers'
"What Women Want," a film with a truly fascinating and clever premise that
nevertheless collapses under the weight of everything that surrounds the
central storyline. Intermittently entertaining with excessive dry spots
amidst the fun, the movie not only overstays its welcome by at least 30
minutes, but never takes off the way it should.
Successful ad slogan man Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson) has a beautiful skyrise
apartment, makes loads of money, and is expected to become the new Creative
Director of the Sloan Curtis Agency in Chicago. He's also a male chauvinist
pig who constantly is taking advantage of the women in his life, whether it
be for a one-night-stand or to use for his own professional wants. When word
comes that Nick's boss (Alan Alda) has bypassed him for a fresh female
viewpoint in the form of Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt), Nick is none too
pleased, hell-bent on upstaging her by thinking of the better slogan for a
women's Nike commercial.
With his ex-wife Gigi (Lauren Holly) on her honeymoon, Nick is left to look
after his estranged 15-year-old daughter, Alex (Ashley Johnson), but has
never been a real father to her and isn't sure how to go about it now. While
drunk one night trying on the latest female sales items that his agency is
getting ready to promote, a freak accident leaves him nearly electrocuted to
death. Awaking the next morning, Nick is, at first, shocked and then
intrigued by being able to hear every woman's thoughts within distance of
him. Using this as an advantage over the mystery of the opposite sex, as
suggested by his psychiatrist (Bette Midler), Nick finds himself gradually
getting in touch with his more emotional, feminine side, and begins to
understand and sympathize with the women around him, including an unexpected
budding attraction to Darcy.
Had this been the whole premise of "What Women Want," director Meyers and his
actors would have been home-free, making an appropriately breezy 90-minute,
bubblegum concoction. Instead, the subplots with extraneous supporting
characters stack up so thickly that it's almost a chore wading through them
all, and then watching each of their never-ending outcomes. There's Lola
(Marisa Tomei), a struggling actress working at a coffee shop who has a mad
crush on Nick. There's a meek office assistant (Judy Greer) ignored by
everyone, and whom Nick learns is potentially suicidal. There's the male
coworker (Mark Feuerstein) who fears everyone thinks he's gay when Nick
overhears a woman's passing thoughts about him. There's the debate over the
Nike slogan ad, and the sly plan of Nick's to steal all of Darcy's bright
ideas from her head before she gets to verbalize them, only to pass them as
his own. There's the upcoming prom night that A! lex, Nick learns, is planning
to lose her virginity to her grungy 18-year-old boyfriend (Eric Balfour) at.
And there's more where that came from.
Nearly each and every one of the aforementioned subplots are well-written,
and would work splendidly in a different movie. But not this one. "What Women
Want" tries valiantly to cover so many different bases in its 2-hour-plus
length that it ends up losing sight of its main purpose, coming off as merely
overstuffed. Screenwriters Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa have a definite way
with words, but aim far too high for such an obviously featherweight movie.
Instead of enriching the film for the good, they only make themselves appear
to be overly self-important by a half.
Where the film does excel is in its sparkling cast; it's just too bad not
more of them are put to good use. From the beginning to the end, "What Women
Want" is Gibson's movie all the way, and he manages to charm and seduce even
when he's being his naturally smarmy self. Gibson has rarely been so loose
and free-spirited on film before. Sharing the most screen time with Gibson is
the hardworking Helen Hunt (2000's "Pay It Forward") in her third of four
movies this year. Hunt is truly making a name for herself in the feature film
world, and it only helps that she is an astoundingly talented, clearly
dedicated performer who takes each of her roles seriously, but also knows how
to have fun with them. Hunt's Darcy Maguire is a smart, strong-willed woman
who isn't afraid to speak her mind, and it's generally easy to see why Nick
becomes so smitten with her.
In the supporting cast arena, Ashley Johnson (1999's "Anywhere But Here") has
the most significant role, and is highly effective as Nick's bitter daughter
Alex. Johnson paints Alex as a realistic, likable, if occasionally stubborn
teenager, and has what are questionably the best scenes in the movie,
including a delightful montage of Nick helping her to pick a prom dress, and
a late, heartfelt scene where, for the first time in her life, Alex finds
herself being able to open up to her father.
Also a standout is Marisa Tomei (2000's "The Watcher"), as the neurotically
sweet Lola. Tomei finds herself able to generate the same level of
firecracker comedic presence that she demonstrated in her Oscar-winning role
in 1992's "My Cousin Vinny." A sex scene between Nick and Lola is a comic
highlight, and Tomei is so cute that it's a shame she is basically thrown
away without any satisfying closure. Having the opposite problem is Judy
Greer (1999's "Jawbreaker"), poignant as the depressed office secretary, who
has a truthfully performed climactic scene, but hasn't had her subplot
developed enough in the early stages to make the sort of powerful impact it
aims for. Everyone else is window-dressing, developed only in the most
scattershot, broad strokes imaginable, though Bette Midler (2000's "Drowning
Mona") does delight in an unbilled cameo. Had she been in the movie more, it
could have easily been her best film role in the ! last four or five years.
"What Women Want" is funny a lot of the time, and occasionally even a little
touching. Director Nancy Meyers gratefully does not load on the corn factor,
as she aims for more human portrayals. Everything is in place for a charmer
of a romantic comedy, the type that mainstream audiences eat up (and they
still might), but it isn't successful in the long run. The film is a long,
overblown extravaganza complete with a nonstop music soundtrack, and even two
dance sequences. The solo number with Nick dancing to Frank Sinatra, complete
with a top hat and a coat rack, is impressive on a technical level, but comes
out of nowhere, only helping to stack on an extra three or four minutes of
superfluity. The concluding scene between Gibson and Hunt is also severely
misguided and does not go out on a graceful note. Ultimately, "What Women
Want" has the ability to be a winning diversion, but much like the character
of Nick, it simply doesn'! t know when to stop.
Copyright © 2000 Dustin Putman