A romantic comedy with a supernatural spin, What Women Want enjoys impressive star power but rides roughshod over its clever premise and fumbles the search for an attractive tone.
Advertising executive Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson) is a magnet for the ladies but treats them with dismissive disdain. Divorced from Gigi (Lauren Holly) and an absentee dad to his 15 year old daughter Alex (Ashley Johnson), Nick is shocked when he is passed over for a promotion. Instead, his boss Dan Wanamaker (Alan Alda) hires Darcy McGuire (Helen Hunt) to lead the creative team, in an attempt to reorient the firm’s ad campaigns to better appeal to women.
While trying on women’s products to get in touch with his feminine side, Nick suffers an electrocution accident, and gains the supernatural ability to hear the inner thoughts of women. After first panicking and visiting therapist Dr. Perkins (an uncredited Bette Midler), Nick starts to use his new powers to advance his career. He gains inspiration from the hidden thoughts and feelings of women around him, and starts to steal Darcy’s ideas to enhance his credentials on women-oriented campaigns. But Nick and Darcy also start to fall in love, complicating his attempts to undermine her performance.
What Women Want playfully tackles the age-old topic of men wishing they could better understand women. The premise has plenty of potential, and the film enjoys moments of good humour, befuddlement and personal awakening as Nick hears the inner thoughts of new boss Darcy, daughter Alex, barista Lola (Marisa Tomei) and office girl Erin (Judy Greer).
But director Nancy Meyers frequently bludgeons the film towards the ridiculous, encouraging Gibson to overact to distraction. Whenever there is a choice between subtle and stupid, Meyers chooses the low road, aiming for the broad laugh and glaring emotion when a more astute direction was available. The film hurtles towards the obvious, and in its rush misses opportunities to delve into gender issues with sensitivity. Thanks to a tonally challenged script, the workplace tensions between Nick and Darcy don’t work as planned. What is intended to be competitive comes across as collaborative, undermining the latter part of the film’s dynamic. With the romance between Nick and Darcy also difficult to digest, the better moments are in the subplots with Alex and Erin.
Nick’s powers allow him to try and bridge the generational divide with his daughter, and several moments in the father-daughter journey bravely delve into awkward territory. Even more promising, but less developed, is Nick suddenly becoming aware of Erin’s depressed state as an effectively invisible woman shuffling files within the office, wondering whether anywhere cares if she is even alive. Through Erin’s story the film hints at important issues related to gender gaps and power dynamics in the workplace, and with more courage, Meyers could have better explored this territory.
Much less successful is the subplot involving Lola the frustrated barista, which is introduced, developed and then truncated with heavy-handed clumsiness, Marisa Tomei emerging as the film’s main casualty.
With Frank Sinatra classics dominating the soundtrack and adding to the triple-underline attitude of the film, What Women Want places the delivery burden on Gibson and Hunt to bring the film home. The two attractive stars make the most of the material but are only rarely unable to steer in thought-provoking directions. What Women Want poses good questions, but provides answers that are more frivolous fun and less fascinating flavour.