What Women Want (2000)

D: Nancy Meyers
S: Mel Gibson, Helen Hunt

Relatively harmless romantic comedy which overstretches a thin premise but passes the time amiably enough with the aid of a good comic performance from Mel Gibson (Payback, Lethal Weapon 4). Womanising ad exec Gibson faces stiff competition from corporate interloper Helen Hunt (As Good As It Gets), hired by director Alan Alda to help the company to get in touch with the female market. It looks like the 'man's man' days are over, but Gibson is granted an unexpected edge when a freak accident gives him the extra-sensory power to hear women's thoughts. The consequences vary from his exploiting Hunt's vulnerability and stealing her ideas to helping him understand his teenage daughter (Ashley Johnson). In the way of these things, he also gets an insight into women which helps him to better understand himself, and he of course grows and benefits from the experience.

The film is at its best in the early stages and when at its most farcical. Gibson is a convincing masculine paragon and has fun playing with the image when the character is initially thrown into confusion then finds his new gift useful in all sorts of ways. His antics include a romance with waitress Marisa Tomei (The Watcher), some clever poaching of ideas from his co-workers, and some hilarious encounters with female self-contradiction (thinking one thing, saying another, doing another still). It loses pace when things become more sentimental and Gibson begins to 'learn' about women (and himself, blah, blah, blah). As the film trudges into its last third, it begins to become tedious and the laughs fewer and further between. The romantic attraction between Gibson and Hunt is not really well grounded as we do not get to know her well enough for the later scenes to make sense. Though the actors do their best, there is no real sense of chemistry between them: Gibson's amusingly exaggerated masculinity does not sit well with Hunt's more grounded portrayal of her character.

The schisms in the script are probably also partly the result of the combinations of talents who wrote it. With a story credit for Diane Drake (Only You) and co-story and screenplay credits for TV sitcom writers Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa (King of Queens), it has the feel of a mix of styles and motives. The film is always at its best when it is being flippant and punchy (like a sitcom), but arguably there was a more effective serio-comic romance lurking in the mix somewhere along the way. The result is more sitcom than feature film though, and the feeling of over-extension comes when the creative burst of one-liners and gags peters out and you're left with the plot.

Director Nancy Meyers does her best to achieve a consistent pace, but never gets past the script's basic flaws. She also doesn't quite get away with the fantasy elements in spite of an attempt to literally imbue them with electricity and magic. A key scene near the finale involving Chinatown and a shower of electric sparks looks like it was meant to be more wondrous than it actually is, and that the plot point is so hackneyed and contrived doesn't help. Still, she does enough to hold the film together and drag it past the finish line, if not without a little loss of dignity by the end.

Formulaic romantic comedies of this sort have been around for a very long time. Anyone choosing to see this one will know what to expect. As such there is no great harm in it, but neither is there anything of particular value in spite of the battle-of-the-sexes twists it attempts to throw in (remember Switch?). Perfect rental fodder for casual viewers of fans of the stars.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.

Note: The Region 2 DVD comes with a couple of extra features including a making of an interview with the director, but nothing notable. It does have very elaborate menu screens, but in my view this is not a significant selling point.