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Dustin Putman

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What Women Want (2000)
2 Stars

Directed by Nancy Meyers
Cast: Mel Gibson, Helen Hunt, Ashley Johnson, Mark Feuerstein, Marisa Tomei, Alan Alda, Judy Greer, Lauren Holly, Lisa Edelstein, Delta Burke, Valerie Perrine, Loretta Devine, Ana Gasteyer, Eric Balfour, Bette Midler.
2000 – 126 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for profanity, sexual innuendo, and brief drug use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 16, 2000.

In, amazingly, the first romantic comedy of his career, Mel Gibson (2000's "The Patriot") fits perfectly within the framework of director Nancy Meyers' "What Women Want," a film with a truly fascinating and clever premise that nevertheless collapses under the weight of everything that surrounds the central storyline. Intermittently entertaining with excessive dry spots amidst the fun, the movie not only overstays its welcome by at least 30 minutes, but never takes off the way it should.

Successful ad slogan man Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson) has a beautiful skyrise apartment, makes loads of money, and is expected to become the new Creative Director of the Sloan Curtis Agency in Chicago. He's also a male chauvinist pig who constantly is taking advantage of the women in his life, whether it be for a one-night-stand or to use for his own professional wants. When word comes that Nick's boss (Alan Alda) has bypassed him for a fresh female viewpoint in the form of Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt), Nick is none too pleased, hell-bent on upstaging her by thinking of the better slogan for a women's Nike commercial.

With his ex-wife Gigi (Lauren Holly) on her honeymoon, Nick is left to look after his estranged 15-year-old daughter, Alex (Ashley Johnson), but has never been a real father to her and isn't sure how to go about it now. While drunk one night trying on the latest female sales items that his agency is getting ready to promote, a freak accident leaves him nearly electrocuted to death. Awaking the next morning, Nick is, at first, shocked and then intrigued by being able to hear every woman's thoughts within distance of him. Using this as an advantage over the mystery of the opposite sex, as suggested by his psychiatrist (Bette Midler), Nick finds himself gradually getting in touch with his more emotional, feminine side, and begins to understand and sympathize with the women around him, including an unexpected budding attraction to Darcy.

Had this been the whole premise of "What Women Want," director Meyers and his actors would have been home-free, making an appropriately breezy 90-minute, bubblegum concoction. Instead, the subplots with extraneous supporting characters stack up so thickly that it's almost a chore wading through them all, and then watching each of their never-ending outcomes. There's Lola (Marisa Tomei), a struggling actress working at a coffee shop who has a mad crush on Nick. There's a meek office assistant (Judy Greer) ignored by everyone, and whom Nick learns is potentially suicidal. There's the male coworker (Mark Feuerstein) who fears everyone thinks he's gay when Nick overhears a woman's passing thoughts about him. There's the debate over the Nike slogan ad, and the sly plan of Nick's to steal all of Darcy's bright ideas from her head before she gets to verbalize them, only to pass them as his own. There's the upcoming prom night that Alex, Nick learns, is planning to lose her virginity to her grungy 18-year-old boyfriend (Eric Balfour) at. And there's more where that came from.

Nearly each and every one of the aforementioned subplots are well-written, and would work splendidly in a different movie. But not this one. "What Women Want" tries valiantly to cover so many different bases in its 2-hour-plus length that it ends up losing sight of its main purpose, coming off as merely overstuffed. Screenwriters Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa have a definite way with words, but aim far too high for such an obviously featherweight movie. Instead of enriching the film for the good, they only make themselves appear to be overly self-important by a half.

Where the film does excel is in its sparkling cast; it's just too bad not more of them are put to good use. From the beginning to the end, "What Women Want" is Gibson's movie all the way, and he manages to charm and seduce even when he's being his naturally smarmy self. Gibson has rarely been so loose and free-spirited on film before. Sharing the most screen time with Gibson is the hardworking Helen Hunt (2000's "Pay It Forward") in her third of four movies this year. Hunt is truly making a name for herself in the feature film world, and it only helps that she is an astoundingly talented, clearly dedicated performer who takes each of her roles seriously, but also knows how to have fun with them. Hunt's Darcy Maguire is a smart, strong-willed woman who isn't afraid to speak her mind, and it's generally easy to see why Nick becomes so smitten with her.

In the supporting cast arena, Ashley Johnson (1999's "Anywhere But Here") has the most significant role, and is highly effective as Nick's bitter daughter Alex. Johnson paints Alex as a realistic, likable, if occasionally stubborn teenager, and has what are questionably the best scenes in the movie, including a delightful montage of Nick helping her to pick a prom dress, and a late, heartfelt scene where, for the first time in her life, Alex finds herself being able to open up to her father.

Also a standout is Marisa Tomei (2000's "The Watcher"), as the neurotically sweet Lola. Tomei finds herself able to generate the same level of firecracker comedic presence that she demonstrated in her Oscar-winning role in 1992's "My Cousin Vinny." A sex scene between Nick and Lola is a comic highlight, and Tomei is so cute that it's a shame she is basically thrown away without any satisfying closure. Having the opposite problem is Judy Greer (1999's "Jawbreaker"), poignant as the depressed office secretary, who has a truthfully performed climactic scene, but hasn't had her subplot developed enough in the early stages to make the sort of powerful impact it aims for. Everyone else is window-dressing, developed only in the most scattershot, broad strokes imaginable, though Bette Midler (2000's "Drowning Mona") does delight in an unbilled cameo. Had she been in the movie more, it could have easily been her best film role in the last four or five years.

"What Women Want" is funny a lot of the time, and occasionally even a little touching. Director Nancy Meyers gratefully does not load on the corn factor, as she aims for more human portrayals. Everything is in place for a charmer of a romantic comedy, the type that mainstream audiences eat up (and they still might), but it isn't successful in the long run. The film is a long, overblown extravaganza complete with a nonstop music soundtrack, and even two dance sequences. The solo number with Nick dancing to Frank Sinatra, complete with a top hat and a coat rack, is impressive on a technical level, but comes out of nowhere, only helping to stack on an extra three or four minutes of superfluity. The concluding scene between Gibson and Hunt is also severely misguided and does not go out on a graceful note. Ultimately, "What Women Want" has the ability to be a winning diversion, but much like the character of Nick, it simply doesn't know when to stop.

©2000 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman