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Woman's intuition 

Comic energy sustains What Women Want

The kind of Hollywood film that's grounded enough in "real world" issues to strike an amusing cultural cord, the Mel Gibson-Helen Hunt comedy What Women Want imagines a dyed-in-the-wool chauvinist transformed -- a la some supernatural gender juju -- into a sensitive gal pal.

What Women Want suggests chauvinists are made, not born. Little Nick Marshall (Gibson) grows up surrounded by glittery T&A -- his mother's a showgirl and his backstage playpen is a pasties and pancake make-up world occupied by the kind of old school women who live to indulge men.

It's a rude awakening for an adult Nick, then, to stumble into the 21st century where his promotion to creative director at a Chicago ad agency is threatened by a new breed of woman.

These women don't accommodate, they are accommodated to, Nick's boss Dan (Alan Alda) informs him. Dan has decided his company is losing a competitive edge by ignoring the real power consumers in today's society: women. In an effort to address this newly discovered demographic, Dan hires a rival company's whiz kid, Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt), a chick with a reputation as a ball-buster who -- unlike Nick -- knows what women want, as Sloane-Curtis' new creative director.

Things get pretty weirdly symbolic in What Women Want when Darcy commands her fellow Sloane-Curtis ad execs to think about women by handing them a pink box full of feminine products to shill. The "Box" is like a consumer profile of the feminine heart, mind and underarm, and it's Nick's first baby step in understanding what makes women tick. It contains hair-removal wax, lipstick, a push-up bra, control-top pantyhose, etc. -- all suggesting modern woman is defined by the products with which she adorns herself. Nick delving into the Pandora's "Box" provides some of the most simplistic and brain-dead, but also funny, bits of business in What Women Want, as when he wails after his first attempt at leg waxing, "Who would do this more than once!"

What Women Want can often sound like a scare-story from the pages of Esquire, in which men are the new minority, floundering to know what to do with themselves -- this close to being discontinued as the Insensitive Gender.

Darcy's usurping of Nick's job coincides with another crisis in his life: a freak accident in which Nick, trying to "get in touch" with the female consumer by painting his nails and Biore-ing his pores, falls into a bathtub with his hairdryer and accidentally develops a psychological version of X-ray vision. One minute he's a macho pig and the next, Nick has the ability to hear women's thoughts: the obsessive calorie counting of the woman on the street, the suicidal fantasies of the office mouse, his sexy co-worker's revulsion at his sexist jokes, his doorwoman's appraisal of his "fine ass."

The film's central gimmick is a familiar but amusing one and proves that sometimes even the most lameoid Hollywood comedy can latch onto something interesting. Beneath the lady-like facade of every cordial, accommodating, uncomplaining woman, Nick discovers, is an amazon who bristles with rage at the unequal-on-the-job imbalance between men and women. All these years Nick thought he was a ladies man, but it turns out he never knew a thing about his prey.

What Women Want's concept is distractingly flawed. Many of the unspoken thoughts Nick hears are the kind of relationship dissections and splayed-out feelings many women are already used to dealing out on the emotional table, like the classic "I don't want to get hurt." It's not that men don't have access to women's thoughts, but that even when they are plainspoken, they don't care to really listen.

The film has some of the zany texture of a '50s sex comedy starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day: chiffon light and goofy. Gibson isn't an especially subtle or gifted comic actor. He doesn't so much play comedy in What Women Want as play into a comic environment. And Women and Gibson could be accused of pandering; they treat women a little like Nick's ad agency does: as an important marketing category you better understand if you want to conquer. Nick learns to pay attention and is soon anticipating what the women in his life, from his frustrated Ivy League assistant to his petulant teenage daughter to his new love interest Darcy, need.

What Women Want will probably be more the kind of movie women drag their sensitive fellas to, enticed by the two-headed aphrodisiac of Mel Gibson and a woman-power plot. Helen Hunt, as his love interest, only sweetens the pot -- a non-threatening, regular gal in the Barbara Stanwyck mold who can appeal to men without alienating women. Though Nancy Meyers' film is undeniably trite, unimaginatively directed and often has a smarmy Oprah-esque "you go girl" feel, it manages to maintain a consistent comic energy while it fights the power on its own dopey but appealing Hollywood terms.

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