"I have always disliked being a man," novelist Paul Theroux once wrote. "The whole idea of manhood in America is pitiful, a little like having to wear an ill-fitting coat for one's entire life." And what is that coat made out of? Strength, independence, competitiveness, power, and guarded feelings. "Be a man!" is enough to send chills up one's spine. Images of the Marboro man, soldiers, high-blood pressure, and smugness come to mind. Worst of all is the self-absorbed chauvinist pig who thinks he relates well to women but is oblivious to the fact that he's been at war with them for most of his life.
Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson) is that kind of guy. He grew up as the apple of his Las Vegas showgirl mother's eye. Now he's a middle-aged Chicago ad executive and consummate womanizer. His ex-wife (Lauren Holly) has remarried and while she is on her honeymoon, he is taking care of his daughter Alex (Ashley Johnson), a 15-year-old who desperately wants to lose her virginity.
Through a freak accident, Nick suddenly finds himself able to hear what women around him are thinking. The humor and the charm of this facility last for about five minutes. The upshot of it is that some women are turned on by his physical appearance while others are repulsed by his chauvinism.
Instead of using this gift to sharpen his intuition and develop the feminine side of his personality, Nick decides to work it to advance his love life and his career. He is able to seduce Lola (Marisa Tomei) by feigning sympathy for her worries about being hurt. He gives her just the sexual experience she desires. Then he goes home feeling good about his triumph. Back to that ill-fitting suit!
At work, Nick has just lost out on a promotion to creative director because his boss (Alan Alda) feels the company needs to grab more of the women's market; he's hired Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt) who is known to be a wiz in figuring out women's preferences. Nick listens to her thoughts and steals her ideas for a Nike advertising campaign. Interestingly enough, when we saw the film, the audience actually clapped after Nick screens the ad with its images of a lone woman running, thinking that the highway doesn't care how she looks or how well she plays the game, and its tagline "no games, just sports." This is what women want, but it's still questionable whether Nick has gotten the message.
The only good that comes out of Nick's ability to read women's minds is a closer relationship to his daughter when she is dumped by her boyfriend at the prom and his sensitivity to Erin (Judy Greer), an office wallflower who has sunk into a near suicidal depression. Both of these situations are handled with an excess of emotion making them extremely unconvincing.
Similar to director Nancy Meyers' last outing The Parent Trap, this comic melodrama doesn't take many risks or explore any new territory. Some men have always had a yearning to be tender and nurturing, but What Women Want is too slick to go there. Nancy Meyers doesn't provide a very creative answer to Freud's perennial question.