|What Women Want|
|DVD Romantic Comedy|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Monday, 07 May 2001|
"What Women Want" is a romantic comedy of such easygoing charm and deft humor that it seems to virtually glide across the screen – not unlike Mel Gibson in a charming Chapter 4 sequence that pays visual homage to Gene Kelly, audio tribute to Frank Sinatra and generally sets the tone for what is to follow.
In this key scene, Gibson’s Nick Marshall, a hotshot Chicago ad exec who’s known as a macho man’s man, has been dealt a double whammy. First, he’s been passed over for an expected promotion in favor of a female outsider, Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt), and what’s more, he’s expected to dream up promotional ideas for a batch of women’s consumer products. Nick turns to a Sinatra record for inspiration. As Ol’ Blue Eyes croons "I Won’t Dance" in a silkily enveloping arrangement that coasts with assurance through the mains and rears, Nick dances out his frustration while singing in the center channel in a voice that blends surprisingly pleasingly with the Sinatra rendition.
The sequence accomplishes several things. For starters, it shows us that Gibson is a very decent dancer, his face in frame with his feet often enough to indicate that it’s the actor and not a double most of the time. More important to the overall film, the moment creates an atmosphere of enchantment. When, shortly afterwards, Nick is electrocuted and recovers to find himself suddenly able to telepathically "hear" all female thoughts, it’s an event that fits easily into the universe depicted by director Nancy Meyers and screenwriters Josh Goldsmith & Cathy Yuspa, working from a story by Goldsmith, Yuspa and Diane Drake.
Nick initially freaks out, running for help to a shrink (an uncredited cameo by a very funny Bette Midler). However, once he gets a grip on his new psychic ability, Nick starts out by using it to undermine Darcy, passing her concepts off as his own. Since Darcy can’t know that Nick is picking her brain, so to speak, she simply supposes that she and Nick have similar viewpoints. However, understanding Darcy so intimately causes Nick to start falling in love with him. It also helps him bond with his heretofore estranged teenaged daughter (Ashley Johnson), make enormously successful love to an erstwhile reluctant date (Marisa Tomei) and detect the suicidal depression of an employee (Judy Greer).
There’s actually a lot of potential ickiness in the premise here, but "What Women Want" is so smooth and so breezily funny from the outset that it’s not until after the film is over that we realize how many pitfalls it avoids. For one thing, Nick never comes off as a caricatured Neanderthal – his sexism is of the socially acceptable, boys-will-be-boys type. On the flip side, there’s no overt lecturing (in the film, at least – the supplemental material leans in places toward the didactic), nor is the romance smarmy.
Primarily, "Women" runs on a series of great jokes. There are sight gags, like Nick – duty-bound to try to comprehend the appeal of hosiery – trying on a pair of pantyhouse. There’s also a lot of verbal human in the women’s thoughts that we can hear along with Nick. In a scene in Chapter 9, as our hero starts to bed down with his date, the difference between the faked enthusiasm she shows Nick and what Nick knows is going on in her mind (along with his efforts to change course without letting on he’s reading her mind) is enough to make you laugh out loud.
However, the film truly rises and falls on Gibson’s unspoken but plainly transmitted thoughts as his Nick contemplates what he’ll do with each new bit of secret information. It’s not easy to be entirely likable when portraying a sort of self-interested spy, but Gibson manages the feat. He’s surrounded by an excellent supporting cast, led by Hunt as the extremely personal Darcy and Alan Alda as Nick’simultaneously high-handed and craven boss.
The sound mix is attractive, with an appropriate, almost subliminal echo effect on dialogue that is thought, which differentiates it from the words spoken aloud by the characters. The soundtrack leans toward lush big band arrangements, with several more Sinatra numbers ("I’ve Got You Under My Skin" and "Too Marvelous For Words"), Sammy Davis Jr.’s renditions of "Something’s Gotta Give" and "Mack the Knife" and Peggy Lee’s "I’ve Got the World on a String." There are also more contemporary numbers – Nick’s Chapter 5 sing-along with Meredith Brooks’ "Bitch" (again, he’s singing quietly in the center while the familiar version pumps around him) is a hoot.
There aren’t too many showy effects on either the soundtrack or the monitor screen. The DVD faithfully reproduces the rich jewel tones of blue night skies, green trees and gold lighting, and the audio precisely replicates the sound of individual ball bearings striking the floor and rolling around dimensionally in Chapter 5 and good rain surround effects in Chapter 15, but just about everything with the potential to be loud is kept reined in, like the big electrical events in Chapters 5 and 15.
Supplemental material includes a making-of, plus a batch of interviews that’s essentially an alternate making-of. There’s also an audio commentary track with director Meyers and production designer Jon Hutman. All of these are agreeable, although this is an instance where most of the participants articulate their craft best by performing it rather than analyzing it.
"What Women Want" is smart, swift, sometimes hilarious and consistently enjoyable. It’s not deep enough or singular enough to gain a permanent grip on most imaginations, but as far as entertaining romantic comedies go, it probably qualifies as what practically everybody wants.