erik lundegaard


What Women Want (2000)

In What Women Want, Mel Gibson plays Nick Marshall, a male chauvinist who, after a mishap with the bathtub and hairdryer, suddenly develops the ability to hear women's thoughts. "I'm talking personal private stuff," he tells a male colleague. "The stuff that nobody on earth is supposed to hear."

Written by:
Josh Goldsmith
Cathy Yuspa
Diane Drake

Directed by:
Nancy Meyers

Mel Gibson
Helen Hunt
Marisa Tomei
Alan Alda
Bette Midler
Lauren Holly
Ashley Johnson
Delta Burke
Valerie Perrine

So what are these thoughts that nobody on earth is supposed to hear? Well, apparently women worry a lot about calories, and estrogen, and whether they turned off the coffeemaker. They don't like being bossed around or sent to fetch coffee. They don't men telling them dirty jokes. They're awfully smart — all of them — but underemployed. One worries she might be a lesbian. Another complains her boyfriend doesn't listen to her.

Wow. Who knew?

This, in other words, is the glossy, middle-class version of what women want. No woman thinks any cruel thoughts because apparently none of them are ever cruel. No woman ever complains about another woman because apparently they all get along. There are randy thoughts, yes, but within bounds: more an admiration of rather than a wish to do to, or be done to. It's clean in them thar hills.

Essentially the film is like Liar, Liar without Jim Carrey. Something mystical happens to an asshole which makes him change his asshole ways. Why does this happen? Who knows? For a time Mel uses his ability to get what he wants — including stealing advertising ideas from new boss Darcy McGuire (Helen Hunt) — but eventually he becomes more sensitive. He spends time with his 15 year-old daughter, he cries over a Richard Simmons program (a not-bad scene, actually), he helps out the suicidal girl at work (horribly maudlin crap). He hangs with the ladies in the lunchroom and dispenses relationship advice, almost all of which amounts to "Stand firm with your boyfriend; he'll cave in and come to you." How does Nick know this? He can't read men's minds. And wasn't he always the love-'em-and-leave-'em type? Ah, but this is something the film's core audience wants to believe, so why not give it to them? Even though it's as much a fantasy as being able to read women's minds after being electrocuted.

Now that I think about it, the arc of this story — jerk, mystical, better person — is the arc of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, except that the change for Scrooge relied less on the mystical than the personal (his own past and future). The three spirits essentially gave him a reality check. Remember the decent man you used to be? See how people are suffering in this world? And most importantly: You will die. What do you want your legacy to be? One could argue that the visiting spirits are mere figments of Scrooge's imagination: visions brought on by guilt or by a sense of his own mortality. And even if you want to treat the mystical as mystical, well, it makes sense that Scrooge is visited this way, because Marley knows him and Marley doesn't want Scrooge to suffer as he is suffering.

So why is the mystical visited upon ad executive Nick Marshall? If it's all about becoming a better person, wouldn't the Gods have served us better by visiting the mystical upon, say, George W. Bush? Have him hear the thoughts of the poor and starving and sickly? In the end he becomes a better president and sets out to create a better world. Instead the mystical happens to Nick Marshall and how is the world improved? He helps create a sweet Nike ad campaign.

What Women Want also might have worked better if Nick Marshall, rather than being a recognizable sexist, was a more ordinary man with more ordinary thoughts about women. When the mystical strikes, he becomes aware of their diversity (rather than, here, their homogeny). Perhaps he's corrupted by his power. Perhaps he can never maintain a relationship with a woman because their thoughts always intrude, and maybe he spends more time with men as a result. Something other than this godawful ordinary.

—May 27, 2001

© 2001 Erik Lundegaard