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Mel Is From Mars, Helen's From Venus

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 15, 2000


    'What Women Want' Helen Hunt and Mel Gibson are business rivals turned lovers in "What Women Want."
(Paramount Pictures)
I went into "What Women Want" with the same enthusiasm that I would a colonoscopy. But I have to say, even though I am allergic to Nora Ephron-style pandering (I have a doctor's note to prove it), the movie's not as toxic as I expected. Fans of bubbly romances can consider this a thumbs up. I call it a clenched-teeth concession at best.

Essentially, "Women" is a men-from-Mars-women-from-Venus comedy, starring the leading male Martian of the species, Mel Gibson. As advertising executive and womanizer Nick Marshall, he's all testosterone: arrogant about his abilities in the office and the bedroom. He loves Sinatra. He doesn't drink wine, he gulps it. He's a man's man, a cliché.

Representing the Venusians is Helen Hunt. As Darcy Maguire, she's unflappable (on the surface, anyway), honest, straightforward, adorable and, of course, blond and pretty.

She's also the newest hire at Nick's firm. In fact, she took the job that Nick wanted: creative director. This makes her Nick's boss. War! Her agenda: to corner the market on women's products, lipstick, leg wax, tights, you name it. In other words, Nick, who makes manly ads full of nubile, spread-eagled women, is effectively a dinosaur.

There's a twist to this movie, which was directed by Nancy Meyers, by the way, not Ephron. Nick suddenly acquires the ability to hear the thoughts of every woman. How does this happen? He accidentally zaps himself in the bathtub with a hair dryer. This occurs when he has taken some of these feminine products home – even slipped on the tights – to come up with an advertising scheme.

How low man has fallen.

But when Nick picks himself up from the shock, he's catching thoughts from women all over Chicago. Suddenly he realizes what those women in the office really think of him. But he has a fantastic advantage in the war with Darcy. He can read the mind of his greatest rival, the woman he wants to put out of business.

Would it be too duuuh to mention they start falling in love?

Clearly, this movie amounts to a politically correct makeover for Nick, whose teenage daughter, Alex (Ashley Johnson), unexpectedly moves in with him while the ex (Lauren Holly) is out of town. Now he's got to shop with Alex for her prom dress and listen to her thoughts and, horror of horrors, be a good father.

Writers Josh Goldsmith, Cathy Yuspa and Diane Drake have created some rich situations that will appeal to Martians and Venusians in the audience, including Nick's terrifying bout with a home-waxing kit, and a brainstorming session at the firm, which Darcy leads and Nick mind-reads. But this is an extremely long comedy at more than two hours. And they create some weird loose ends (which may be the fault of Meyers during the editing process, for all I know). After we meet an uncredited and amusing Bette Midler as Nick's former marital counselor, she vanishes for the rest of the movie. And Marisa Tomei plays a love interest for Nick who gets shafted big time, by Nick and the screenplay. She's just tossed out.

Gibson, despite that oily I'm Mel, baby presence and despite the fact that he's nothing but set-up Spam on a feminist plate, does eventually win you over. So does Hunt, even though she's doing the same trick she always does: heightening that beauty with disarming charm. And when they do get together, as we know they will, it's not the worst interplanetary coupling that ever happened.

"What Women Want" (PG-13, 127 minutes) – Contains obscenity, sexual scenes and hideous destruction of male leg hair.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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