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Mel Gibson is perky, but What Women Want sags.



Well, they want Mel.

Women, that is. If the makers of What Women Want are correct—and the film’s weekend box office receipts strongly suggest they are—y’all want a big heaping bowl of Mel Gibson. With its social myopia, meandering plot, scattershot attempts at humor and all-pervading, genial misogyny, about all this new romantic comedy has to offer is the innate personal joie de vivre Gibson brings to nearly any picture he makes.

And it’s nice to see Gibson—one of the very few stars with effortless charm—using that magnetism for something besides menace. Mel’s character here, advertising executive Nick Marshall, lives a Rat Pack kind of life and embraces that reverse political correctness that’s so hip these days. He’s got a fabulous bachelor pad in a Chicago high-rise, a phenomenal wardrobe and a steady stream of hot and cold running women who leave their thongs on his couch. The film calls him a man’s man, but other than his penchants for cigarettes and sexist jokes, that seems to be wishful thinking on director Nancy Meyers’ part: Nick dresses too well and showers too often to truly be a man’s man.

But none of this matters when Nick’s boss (Alan Alda) hires newcomer Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt) for the job Nick coveted at their ad agency. Nick reacts as any movie Cro-Magnon would to having a woman for a boss. Soon, completely out of nowhere, there’s an accident involving a hair dryer and a bathtub, and suddenly Nick can hear women’s thoughts.

So of course Nick decides this power is best used for industrial espionage. He steals Darcy’s ideas, including her plan for a new Nike campaign, and also worms his way into her heart by reading her mind. Will Nick use the vast amount of knowledge he’s gaining for good, not evil? Will he eventually figure out what Darcy wants? Uh, yeah.

It’s surprising to realize this is Gibson’s first true romantic comedy in a decade. It’s also surprising to see what an insulting movie Gibson has chosen to make in his return to the genre that perhaps best suits his talents. Most romantic comedies sneak up on the true-love-conquers-all conceit by which they’re all governed. This one superficially conceals its path under politically incorrect (and even more importantly, unfunny) humor and meandering subplots that drag on for 127 unforgivable minutes, yet we arrive at the exact same destination as every other romantic comedy.

The premise is pure screwball farce, and you’d think Gibson would have more fun with it. But instead of aping the Doris Day-Rock Hudson boardroom capers of the 1960s, Gibson and Hunt become a touchy-feely couple who don’t appear to be having much fun in their relationship. Gibson spends the movie becoming sadder but wiser, while Hunt embraces that ageless movie chestnut that a woman can change a man in two hours or less simply by showing him what a truly nice person she is. Horse pucky.

Hunt is pointless as yet another of the strong-on-the-outside-but-tender-underneath women she mocked with her role in Dr. T and the Women earlier this year. And Gibson’s film choices must be seriously questioned after this picture and the summer’s execrable The Patriot. He’s clearly sacrificing the eclectic mix of quality movies he made during the 1990s for the huge paychecks from less interesting studio fare.

And at the end, I’m still confused. So what women want is for men to eavesdrop on them? Or do they want everyone to recognize what truly wonderful people they are, even if they aren’t? Or is it that they just want to be with Mel? Near as I can tell, it’s a bit of all three. But Mel isn’t talking.

What Women Want H1/2 Directed by Nancy Meyers. Starring Mel Gibson, Helen Hunt and Alan Alda.