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WHAT WOMEN WANT

by: James Berardinelli

butor: Paramount Pictures

The key to enjoying What Women Want - a feather-light trifle that will probably find favor at the box office - is not considering the age-old question of what might have been. The underlying premise - a male chauvinist suddenly gaining access to women's thoughts - is so infinitely rich that it could have been used as the lynchpin of a truly great motion picture. However, the agenda set by director Nancy Myers and screenwriters Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa, is of a much less substantive nature. So, rather than looking at What Women Want for what is isn't, it's most productive to view it for what it is - a romantic comedy that is as entertaining as it is inconsequential.

Most of the credit for the film's success has to be laid at the feet of Mel Gibson, who exudes energy and oozes charm. Gibson's dynamic personality elevates the film - this is the most drive he has shown in several years. His co-star, Helen Hunt, seems content to remain largely in the background, although, during the course of her low-key performance, she does a nice job of developing her character into the semblance of a rounded individual (keeping within the constraints of the script, which is acutely aware of, and therefore anchored by, audience expectations). A nice level of romantic chemistry exists between Hunt and Gibson - certainly more than was evident in her recent endeavors, in which she was paired with Richard Gere (Dr. T and the Women) and Kevin Spacey (Pay It Forward).

What Women Want has a simple premise that it exploits to a point, although not to the fullest. Nick Marshall (Gibson) is a "man's man" - the kind of politically incorrect charmer whom women fall for instantly. But there's a drawback to all of that machismo. Despite being the most accomplished ad man at Chicago's Sloane Curtis agency, Nick is passed over for the job of Creative Director, a position everyone in the office assumed he would get - everyone except the boss, Dan Wannamaker (Alan Alda), who patiently explains that, with the increase in female buying power, Sloane Curtis needs someone who understands that "it's a woman's world out there." That person isn't Nick; it's Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt), the queen of female-driven marketing. And the moment she gets the job, Nick is determined to unseat her at all costs.

Then, suddenly, the King of Testosterone gets an unexpected infusion of estrogen. A home accident gives him the unlikely ability to hear what women are thinking. At first, he believes it's a curse, but then a psychologist (Bette Midler in a cameo) convinces him that it's a gift. So he begins to employ his powers for personal gain, both in bed and at the office, where he shamelessly pilfers Darcy's ideas and passes them off as his own. But, along the way, two things start happening. First, Nick begins to actually empathize with women. Secondly, he develops feelings for Darcy.

A fair amount of the comedy, like the romance, works. Some of the humor is pretty raunchy (almost too salty for a PG-13 rating), but there are enough solid laughs to make up for when things fall flat. One of the most memorable scenes has Nick in bed with a woman using his newly-discovered talent to assess and improve his ability as a lover. And, of course, many of jokes result from Nick's being privy to the dichotomy between what women say and what they think. When the film strays into dramatic territory, it's on less certain ground. However, two of the secondary characters - a coffee serving girl named Lola (Marisa Tomei) and a suicidal messenger at Nick's office (played by Judy Greer) - are interesting enough to have warranted more screen time than they are accorded. Conversely, Nick's relationship with his teenage daughter, Alex (Ashley Johnson), could have been excised without losing much more than about 20 minutes of running time.

The final scene doesn't work.

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