“What do women want?” is the question Freud wanted answered, and it’s also what Hollywood green-lighters ask themselves every day. What kind of movie do women want that will make them collectively spend millions of dollars to see their secret psyches up on the big screen? At one point, “Sixteen Candles” captured what it was for the female adolescent brain to grow painfully from girlhood into womanhood. At another point, “Pretty Woman” fantasized about the female psyche wanting to transcend its sexual body. Now, “What Women Want” sets out to show what’s going on inside the mind of today’s workingwoman, longing to earn a living and win the guy at the same time. So, it’s a bit disquieting that if “What Women Want” is what women want now, it’s a movie that allows them to fantasize themselves as all-powerful and all men as emasculated.
To that end, meet Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson), our male hero and the ultimate jerk. He occupies his New York City office designing ad campaigns for Johnny Walker and spends his time outside hitting on every woman within a six-foot radius. Nick’s background? He’s not just a divorcee who’s left his wife, he’s also a deadbeat dad who’s largely left his daughter. He is both the man women want because he is attractive, and the man women want to castrate because he is powerful. Raised at the breast of a showgirl-mother amidst the feathers and glitter of strippers, Nick believes he knows exactly what women want. Unluckily for Nick, the times they are a changing. At the agency, his boss, Dan Wanamaker (Alan Alda), is growing worried company revenue is falling because they’ve not been savvy enough in selling product to the purse-toting population of female consumers multiplying all around them.
Nick gets his first shock when he discovers that he won’t be getting the much longed for promotion he wants. Instead, he’ll be getting a new Director. And, she’s a woman. Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt) is, in fact, known across town as a “man-eater,” the kind of newfangled gal who’d rather work than flirt, the type of modern-day woman who throws the system of man-made capitalism into chaos. Into Nick’s world, Maguire totes her flower-filled office, her rhetoric about collaboration, and small pink boxes for all her employees. Instructed to study this package of troubling femininity-which includes a Biore strip, hot wax, mascara, and a bra-and practice concocting marketing ideas for women, Nick takes his box home and tries womanhood on for a test-drive.
After donning pantyhose and a bra, spilling bath-beads and utilizing a hairdryer, Nick gets his second profound shock to the system in an apparent conflation between electrocution and the gender gods. Upon waking up from his zapped stupor, Nick discovers that he can now hear what women are thinking. Out inundated in the world by the interior voices of the women around him, Nick finally discovers what’s really going on in the minds of women. And basically, in “What Women Want,” that is a lot of neurotic obsessing. (In one of the movie’s more ridiculous moments, Nick reads the mind of a female French poodle who, thanks to the screenwriting of Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa, is thinking, “Monsieur, I need to poop.”) And, Nick also learns of women that they devote quite a bit of time to deeply resenting the men around them–including him.
But, as Nick’s shrink, played by Bette Midler, declares, “If you know what women want, you can rule!” Even though Nick is initially overwhelmed by all the anti-patriarchal hate going-on around him, he exploits his new skill to read Maguire’s brain and steal her profitable new ad-campaign idea right out of her noodle. Women are mean and demanding, Nick apparently surmises, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still screw them in more ways than one. Since at this point, “What Women Want” remembered it was intended as a movie for women not a movie bashing women, Nick must be put in his place and fall for the lady. It suffices to say, Nick discovers that these days all women really want to be is the knight in shining armor.
The problematic aspects in “What Women Want” include Nancy Meyers’ directing. While Gibson’s performance is occasionally charming, it is more caricature than character, and Hunt’s underdeveloped and tersely enigmatic embodiment of Maguire is not especially revealing either. The strangely contradictory script by Goldsmith and Yuspa suffers most pointedly from the fact that the movie’s story is largely more surreal situation rather than potent plot; for those who don’t find men-in-pantyhose or poodle-poop jokes hilarious, it also contains not many funny lines. The most troubling thing about the film, though, and probably where “What Women Want”‘s greatest failure lies, is that it is fundamentally unable to pick sides in the gender war. It is as caught up in despising macho-men for using women as it is disgusted with modern-women for letting it happen. We’re left torn between hating men or hating women, and by the end of “What Women Want” are left pick-pocketed by the supposition that everything would be fine in gender-relations today if women just acted like men and men just acted like women. Let’s hope, in the end, that’s not what women really want after all.