Doin’ the time warp

What Women Want

What Women Want is premised on two flawed assumptions. Firstly, that women don’t already tell men what they want. And secondly, that men aren’t already listening. By managing to insult the intelligence of both sexes early on, it doesn’t give itself much of a chance.

Mel Gibson plays Nick Marshall, a proudly misogynistic and divorced advertising man who is so sexist and unattractive that he seems like an utter anachronism on the big screen – and for a mainstream film today, that’s saying something. His character is just awful, and the film’s essential problem is that he’s so unlikable you don’t even want to see him transformed into someone a little bit nice.

Nick has been pipped at the post by Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt) for the position of creative director at one of Chicago’s biggest ad agencies. Boss Alan Alda (with his mellifluous voice, one of the few pleasures to be heard here) has decided that the agency needs to move with the times and – gasp – sell things to women. Never mind that most ad agencies would have made this shift in the 70s – it’s Hollywood that’s been remarkably slow in trying to catch up with feeble-minded movies like this one.

Darcy gives the staff a box full of the feminine items that the market is currently seeking advertisers for. Nick heads home, has a drink or two, and after a truly excruciating scene where he sings along to Frank Sinatra, decides to try to "think like a broad". This kind of film may have worked in the 50s, but it falls flat and hard in the 21st century.

To do such an outrageous thing, Nick decides to try all of the products in the box: he paints his nails, puts on lippy, blow dries his hair and slips on some pantihose. He’s just about to slip on a bra when daughter Alex (Ashley Johnson), who is staying with him temporarily and already has a healthy low opinion of him, arrives home with her boyfriend and springs him.

After they leave in horror, Nick keeps playing around and ends up tripping and falling into the bathtub while holding a blowdryer. He gives himself an electric shock and a special gift: the ability to hear women’s thoughts. Unlikely, but an interesting and promising concept.

So Nick starts to learn what it’s like to be a woman. As he hears what the women at work think of him, he realizes what a prat he’s been, and gradually modifies his behavior – although at the same time he uses his newfound knowledge to his sexual advantage and to get a few steps ahead of Darcy. The problem here is that it’s difficult to believe that a guy like this wouldn’t have already had plenty of straight-talking women – and men – tell him what an utter loser he is.

Very little redeems this unrealistic and backwards-looking film. There are moments of minor amusement, particularly as Nick seduces a woman he’s had his eye on for some time (Marisa Tomei, who is very good – her line "Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr Nick Marshall" is memorable) and turns into a much nicer dad to Alex. But the outcome is predictable: that Nick learns it’s not a bad idea to listen to women, and that Darcy – independent and intelligent, but full of insecurities as the movie deems any woman so savvy must be – was just waiting to be swept off her feet by him.

What do women want? Films that give their characters some complexity and toughness, for a start. Women will need to be treated to a little more sophistication before being fooled into thinking that there’s finally a Hollywood release that takes them seriously.

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