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 that 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 hair dryer 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 lays there like a bathroom break. (Surprisingly, there is no listing in the movie's credits for Wieden & Kennedy, the Portland-based firm that reps Nike, but the film 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 okay 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 it is outright gimmick, and not even a very good one, since 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 -- likely would 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 besides 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 pad, swinging his coatrack like a pliable partner. He refuses to watch any television show starring a woman, gulps red wine 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 brief 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, the screen feels a million miles away from the audience.
Nick, we're told, has good reason for his misogyny. According to off-screen 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, he'd grow up to become the "king of T&A ads": At his ad agency, which is run by a bespectacled Alan Alda, Nick is a star. Men admire him, and most women, including the counter girl at the local coffeeshop (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 affection.
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 sell-out circuit. She and Nick immediately clash: Darcy suspects he's a woman-hating hack, while 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, 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.