Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:06 - Released 12/15/00

The premise for What Women Want sounds like, and is, the dumbest thing going. Picture it: a playboy who treats women like servants and sex objects receives an electrical shock that suddenly enables him to hear what the women around him are thinking. Sounds like an episode of The Flintsones. But the actual film, by chick-flick writer/producer Nancy Meyers, whose only directing credit before this is 1998's The Parent Trap, is, I must admit, better than the sum of its parts. Oh, don't get me wrong — the premise is still absurd to the point of insulting the intelligence. But the relationship work between hunk cutout Mel Gibson and leading lady cutout Helen Hunt is surprisingly engaging given their respective handicaps from an acting standpoint.

What's surprising is that a women's film, directed by a woman and written by a team with a two-to-one woman majority (Josh Goldsmith, Cathy Yuspa, Diane Drake), about the issue of seeing things from the woman's perspective, has such pathetically stupid parts for women. All the females in the cast except Hunt are as two-dimensional as can be; it's as if Meyers is challenging us to respect these people. Talented actresses like Bette Midler, Ana Gasteyer, and Marisa Tomei (whose high point is faking an orgasm) are cast in utterly disposable, depth-challenged roles, and the "thoughts" we hear from them (and this includes Hunt) are so shallow and insipid that I would think women would be outraged. This is what they're supposed to be thinking? But I digress.

In the opening minutes, Nick Marshall (Gibson) is described as a "man's man" (on behalf of men everywhere, thanks a lot). He's a deadbeat dad and a sexist who orders coffee from his co-workers, cons his cleaning lady into making him breakfast, and slaps the butt of any female within butt-slapping distance. But for some reason, they all act like they love him, presumably because he's so gorgeous and also the best salesman in his Chicago advertising firm, Sloane/Curtis. Although he thinks he's up for the promotion to creative director, it goes instead to a transfer from a competing company, Darcy Maguire (Hunt), who is known as a "man-eating bitch." Darcy and Nick don't exactly see eye to eye, but she is hired by Nick's panicked boss (Alan Alda) to help the company get inside "the woman's psyche" and revive its slumping sales figures. Next, Nick has his electrical, instant-psychic, Hanna-Barbera-esque experience, and suddenly can read the mind of anyone who owns a uterus. So he uses this talent to steal Darcy's ideas, causing her to think they're just on the same wavelength all the time and fall in love with him.

As stupid as all this sounds, and is, once the film moves from Gibson hearing women's thoughts about him ("he's such a jerk, but what a sweet ass") to the developing relationship between him and Hunt, it is really not so terrible. It's almost like two separate films. The first half includes tons of supposed female-pleasing shlock, like a time-wasting musical number with Gibson dancing to a Frank Sinatra tune, and him getting the woman's perspective by trying everything from bikini wax to a Wonder Bra. But later, when he actually begins relating to Hunt (and to his teenage daughter), it can be intelligent, touching, and heartwarming. ***

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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