Women are from Venus; men are from the gutter.
That’s more or less the view of things at work in What Women Want, a sporadically funny, rigidly formulaic romantic comedy about a chauvinistic man’s man named Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson) who suffers a standard-issue comedy-fantasy freak accident that gives him telepathic access to the thoughts of women. Nick may be a male chauvinist, but the film verges into misandrism.
"Men are stupider, it’s true," Nick mutters to his friend Morgan (Mark Feuerstein) at one point. "They are."
Morgan can’t believe what he’s hearing: "What do you mean, ’They’? What, are you officially a woman now?"
"Oh, I wish," Nick retorts. "A woman wouldn’t have screwed over the woman she loved, no, they don’t think that way." Nick then goes on to offer a revisionistic feminist reading of Freudian theory: "They don’t envy… We do. That’s why we cheat, and screw up, and lie — because we’re obsessed with our own equipment."
In What Women Want, no male character ever does anything noble or generous or compassionate (except of course for the ultimately-redeemed Nick of the last act), and no female character ever does anything self-serving or insensitive or underhanded. (Well, there is that woman in Nick’s office who uses the company phone to call her boyfriend in Israel. But neither she nor any other woman takes advantage of another human being, the way men do. And she rationalizes that the company takes advantage of her anyway.)
The women are basically innocent victims of male piggishness. Sometimes unknowingly, like Nick’s new boss Darcy (Helen Hunt, her tightly cautious smile and bright sincerity starting to wear thin), who doesn’t know Nick is using his mind-reading powers to lift ad-campaign ideas right out of her head. Sometimes pathetically, like the coffee-shop girl Lola (wasted Marisa Tomei), who’s left emotionally shattered after an evening of extraordinary intimacy with the preternaturally sensitive-seeming Nick that’s followed by six days with no phone call. And sometimes resentfully, like the woman with the boyfriend in Israel, who inwardly screams that her womanhood (which she invokes by an anatomical reference) holds her back in a menial job that’s beneath her Ivy League education.
The men are all cads. Morgan makes obscenely lacivious gestures behind Darcy’s back during a business meeting for Nick’s amusement. A callow young man (Eric Balfour) pursues Nick’s underage daughter (Ashley Johnson) with one thing on his mind, then dumps her when she decides not to sleep with him after all. Alan Alda injects some pathos into a supporting role as Nick and Darcy’s stressed boss, but he’s ultimately as heartless and self-serving as all men. And Nick, of course, is the ultimate Man Who Doesn’t Get It — until of course he finally does get it, leading to enlightened speeches such as the one above.
But What Women Want is not an angry chick flick; it wants to please male viewers too. So it reassures them that, yes, they may be terminally clueless, but hey, women still check out their butts. Guys may not know what women want, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t be what women want, right? After all, Nick is the least insightful guy on the planet for much of the film, and look at him.
Probably nobody could pull off this kind of thing better than Mel Gibson. With his effortless charm and comedic energy, his expressive face and gung-ho physicality, he kids his own image without diminishing its potency. He’s funny and appealing even when the movie isn’t, and even when his character has no right to be.
What about the movie’s portrait of the female psyche? It’s a mixed bag — which on the whole may be a good thing. The thoughts Nick overhears are sometimes trivial or superficial, sometimes silly or embarrassing, sometimes painful or revelatory. Some come across as a male-fantasy version of what women think about (as when Darcy is flustered to find her gaze repeatedly drawn to Nick’s crotch); others skewer male insecurities (as when Lola, in bed with Nick, idly contemplates watching Leno later that evening). Often enough the things Nick overhears have nothing to do with him at all.
In a word, the thoughts Nick hears are sufficiently varied that no single version of The Female Mind emerges (beyond of course the already-observed principles that women are basically unselfish and victimized by men). In this variety is a degree of realism — though some overheard thoughts still ring false. "I wonder why I always feel like he’s checking me out," Nick hears Darcy wonder. In the dress she’s in, she surely expects everyone to be checking her out (my wife suggested that a more plausible thought might have been "I wonder if he thinks I’m hot").
Likewise, a dreadful scene in which the distraught Lola confronts Nick, desperately hoping that he will tell her that the real reason he didn’t call her back is that he’s gay, is as phony as three-inch press-on nails. Like Nick himself, the film unconscionably uses Lola and then then tosses her aside; this scene is meant to make us feel better about it, and doesn’t.
The whole Lola subplot echoes a similar bit from a more successful romantic comedy-fantasy: Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray continually relives the same day again and again. Murray’s character can’t read women’s minds, but he can use information he learns in one go-round to mysteriously know things about them in subsequent iterations. In that film as in this one, the male lead selfishly uses his unique advantages to manipulate a secondary female character into bed (but subsequently, of course, he is morally transformed by his own extraordinary experiences, in theory becoming worthy of the leading lady).
But Groundhog Day has the softening factor that whatever Murray does is always wiped out at the close of the day, so that in the end the woman he seduces is none the worse for it; indeed, for her it never happened, ultimately. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Lola.
Althought What Women Want makes no attempt to venture a definitive answer to the question implicit in its title, it’s perhaps worth noting that the same question was asked, and an interesting answer offered, in a pair of much older stories: the medieval Arthurian tale of Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady, and the Wife of Bath’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
The two stories have similar plots. In each, a male hero is given one year to come up with the true answer to the question "What do women most desire?" The hero searches far and wide for the answer, which many assure him is riches, good times, a lover, or some such thing; but the true answer comes from an old crone, who tells him that what women want is "sovereignty." Significantly, in neither tale are women mere damsels in distress in need of male rescuing.
(Minor spoilers ahead.) The same can’t be said for What Women Want, which has Nick spend the last half-hour of the film running around rescuing various damsels in distress, who are all quite passive in the process. The fact that the distress they are in is all more or less related to Nick’s earlier bad behavior only emphasizes the extent to which their lives are determined by Nick, not themselves.
Of course, one of the damsels is Nick’s 15-year-old daughter, so it’s reasonable that Nick’s behavior should be an important factor in her life. But other women — including Darcy, who’s meant to be one of the leads — are relegated to curiously passive roles for adult female characters in a contemporary film with politically correct intentions. The politics of victimhood does not make for very good romantic comedy.
Clumsier still are the film’s efforts to reverse this trend in its closing moments, by trying to turn Darcy into a self-styled "knight in shining armor." This final scene is the least convincing and satisfying in the whole film (except of course for Lola’s last scene), ending the movie with a thud rather than a bang.
Part of the problem is that Nick’s confession to Darcy about how he took advantage of her is delayed until the very end. As a result, there’s no time for the logical emotional progression of shock → anger → distance → redemption → forgiveness → reunion.
Not that every relationship, put to the test, would necessarily have to go through this all these stages. But instead of sidestepping the progression, What Women Want tries to smoosh it all together into a single scene. The movie wants Darcy to punish Nick and also have them immediately kiss and make up, and it doesn’t work. Nick delivers a heartfelt speech that has flashes of Tom Cruise’s "You complete me" speech at the end of Jerry Maguire. I won’t repeat Darcy’s reply, but it falls somewhat short of "You had me at ‘Hello.’ "
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.