What Women Want could be the first movie to win a Clio Award for Advertisement of the Year. No fewer than two dozen products receive prominent placement in the film, from Federal Express to Foster's Lager to Cutty Sark to L'eggs pantyhose to US Airways. After a while, you begin to wonder whether Paramount Pictures actually spent a cent on the film or whether the whole thing was subsidized by advertisers who figured out that the way to beat TiVo and Replay TV, which allow viewers to digitally record and watch TV shows without suffering through commercial breaks, was to pay studios to turn their product into two-hour advertisements. The movie -- directed by Nancy Meyers, who wrote Private Benjamin and the sickly-sweet Father of the Bride films starring Steve Martin -- doesn't even look to have been directed; "manufactured" is perhaps a more apt description, "pieced together using demographic studies and marketing reports and focus groups." What do women want? Well, that depends. What age are we talking about? Income level? Marital status? Sexual orientation?
And it's the first film in history to actually contain its own commercial break -- a full-length ad for Nike running shoes for women, conceived and executed by the Chicago-based ad firm for which Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson) and Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt) work. About two-thirds of the way into the movie, the story completely stops -- which is unfortunate, because it takes forever to get going and needs little help losing momentum -- to allow Nick to narrate the commercial in front of a cadre of female Nike execs. A woman runs on wet pavement, thinking to herself about how the road, unlike life, demands nothing. (Slogan: "No games. Just sports.") Nick gives the woman in the ad voice, thought, internal monologue. It is, after all, the film's premise: After a bathroom accident involving a hairdryer and a full bathtub, Nick suddenly has the ability to hear precisely what women are thinking. But the film is so shallow and on-the-nose (how many times can someone tell Nick, "Sometimes I think you're a mind-reader"), the Nike ad just lies there like a bathroom break. (Surprisingly, there is no listing for Wieden & Kennedy, the Portland-based firm that reps Nike, in the movie's credits, but it reeks of co-op advertising nonetheless -- a sinister tie-in.)
Gibson, the swaggering sexist, is allowed entrance into the female psyche, where he discovers just how much damage he's wrought over the years. (Hollywood loves movies about how it's OK to be a jerk, as long as you realize your mistake, well, somewhere down the road.) But Nick's ability to read the female mind is less plot machination than outright gimmick, and not even a very good one, because his ability seems to come and go with no rhyme or reason. After all, someone truly stricken with such a gift -- and Nick considers it nothing less than horrifying, until Bette Midler shows up as a dope-smoking therapist who reassures him it is an endowment -- would likely go mad in an hour; look what happened to Jennifer Lopez in The Cell. But Gibson's Nick hears only random thoughts, complete sentences rather than torrents of subconscious ramblings. In the end, he learns absolutely nothing other than the obvious: What women want is to be treated with kindness and consideration. They want to be listened to. They don't want to be called "babe," don't want to fetch coffee, don't want to be treated like bims and broads, and don't want to be fucked and forgotten. As revelations go, this one's somewhere between "Cigarettes are bad for you" and "Murder might get you into trouble."
Nick fancies himself the bastard child of Frank Sinatra and Fred Astaire (though he's more like Joey Bishop), and his male colleagues are awed by his "genius" with the ladies. He sings and dances to Sinatra in his postmod bachelor's pad, swinging his hat rack like a pliant partner. He refuses to watch any television show starring a woman, gulps red wine in between puffs on his ever-present cigarette and delivers every line with a smarmy smirk. Had this movie been made 20 years ago, it might have starred Burt Reynolds as Nick: What Women Want might even qualify as a remake of Reynolds' 1983 film The Man Who Loved Women; Midler's cameo comes across as a nod to Julie Andrews' stint as Reynolds' shrink. Both Reynolds and Gibson possess the charmer's leer while managing to keep the material at such a distance that the screen feels a million miles away from the audience.
Nick, we're told, has good reason for his misogyny. According to offscreen narration provided by ex-wife Gigi (Lauren Holly), Nick was raised by a Vegas showgirl who suckled him on a pair of great tits and set impossibly high standards for her little boy. It was little surprise, then, that he'd grow up to become the "king of T&A ads": At his ad agency, which is run by a bespectacled Alan Alda, he's a star. Men admire Nick, and most women, including the counter girl at the local coffee shop (Marisa Tomei), adore him, or so he thinks. Little does he know that behind their friendly smiles and come-on looks, they secretly think he's a schmuck. Even his daughter, Alex (Ashley Johnson), hates him: He's the distant dad who tries to buy her affections.
Then, for the first time in his life, Nick doesn't get what he expected -- a promotion to creative director of his firm. That gig goes to Darcy, whose rep as a "man-eating bitch" has followed her on the sellout circuit. She and Nick immediately clash: Darcy suspects he's a woman-hating hack, and Nick figures her for a castrating demon. In an hour, they're making out in a restaurant. An hour later ... well, you figure it out; suffice it to say that, once more, Helen Hunt makes a self-absorbed prick want to be a better man. This stuff really isn't that hard, you know, not when Hollywood keeps turning out sitcoms masquerading as movies, and What Women Want is dying for a laugh track. Really, what women want is what all of us want: a decent movie, something vaguely insightful and occasionally funny. This isn't that movie.