What Women Want

Though it isn’t quite Oscar material, Mel Gibson gives what may be the most entertaining big-star performance of the year in What Women Want. He’s perfectly cast as Nick Marshall, who as a boy was raised in a Las Vegas casino, surrounded by glittering showgirls, and has very happily stayed frozen in that pre-feminist state. Now a suave ad executive and ladies’ man, Nick has made a name as the go-to guy for babes-in-bikinis ads. Gibson enjoys himself to the hilt; his Nick lives in a constant mellow, self-satisfied vibe of heterosexual male privilege. He doesn’t waste a thought on those who disapprove of him; they don’t know what they’re missing.

Of course, What Women Want is about how Nick gets his consciousness raised, but the surprise of the movie is that Gibson’s performance only gets more satisfying, not duller as you might expect. Nick’s male privilege is broken down piece by piece. He loses out on a coveted creative-director spot when the firm’s boss (Alan Alda), noting that young women have more buying power than ever before, brings in top idea woman Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt). Darcy passes around various feminine products and asks everyone to devise ad campaigns for them, geared to women. Nick looks crumpled; he can’t possibly relate to this chick stuff — he stares at the nail polish and Biore strips as if they were Incan antiquities.

One drunken night, as much out of a scornful parodic tantrum as out of desperation for an idea, the hapless Nick tries all the products — lipstick, panty hose, leg waxer — and falls into a goofy accident that somehow allows him to hear women’s thoughts. He hears lustful thoughts, banal thoughts, and, most painfully, honest thoughts — he hears what the women at his office really think about him. Even his 15-year-old daughter (Ashley Johnson) doesn’t cut him any slack, though there isn’t much difference between her derisive thoughts about him and her derisive statements to him. For long stretches, Gibson plays Nick’s awakening as agonized comedy; every woman’s mental capsule review of him shoots an arrow into his swollen ego.

Not surprisingly, Nick soon learns to use his ability to his advantage, and when he “hears” Darcy’s ideas for a Nike campaign, he steals them and passes it off as the uncanny synchronicity of two creative people on the same page. Nick and Darcy are also required by the plot to fall in love, the movie’s least convincing aspect. Helen Hunt relaxes and breathes here (a relief after her Acting in Pay It Forward), but part of her strength as an actress is that she can show us what she’s thinking — she can do a lot with her eyebrows or a slight nod — and when we hear what she’s supposedly thinking, it doesn’t live up to what Hunt can do silently.

Nick finds himself in situations he wouldn’t have known how to handle before, and barely knows how to handle now, except that now he listens. It’s as if there’d been nothing in his head (except his own pleasure) before women’s thoughts took over the space. He deals with his daughter’s budding sexuality; he deals with a smitten coffee-shop clerk (Marisa Tomei); he deals with an office messenger (Judy Greer) whose thoughts sound bitter and unhappy. The concept isn’t wholly original (the most recent treatment was the controversial Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Earshot”), but what is original is the effect that female consciousness has on a smug vulgarian like Nick Marshall, and on Mel Gibson.

Women may leave the theater wishing that men could be electrocuted into enlightenment more often; they may wish that about Gibson, too. The journey he makes here — from a slick womanizer, to a bedevilled receptor of women’s thoughts, to an opportunist capitalizing on those thoughts, and finally to a good man who’s learned to intuit what women want simply by facing them — brings out all of Gibson, all the shades of intelligence and stupidity, of deception and candor. It’s a full package — a full performance.

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Explore posts in the same categories: comedy, romance

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