1 and 1/2 out of four stars
TITLE: “What Women Want”
RATING: PG-13 (Occasional sexual candor and vulgarity; fleeting simulation of intercourse and allusions to drug use)
CREDITS: Directed by Nancy Meyer
RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes
”What Women Want” prefers to muddle and trivialize the ongoing conflicts and misunderstandings that bedevil the mating game. Its bread-and-butter draw is Mel Gibson in an incongruously caddish role that never quite flatters him as clown, amorist or stellar good sport.
Indeed, writer-director Nancy Meyer invents a farcical tangle that seems desperate for an escape hatch. She presses her luck, juggling too many subplots while trying to reform the cad on whom she also needs to dote.
Mr. Gibson has two genuinely beguiling interludes: teasing Sean Connery’s pronunciation of “adversary” and other words while watching “The Hunt for Red October” on television and improvising a little soft-shoe in homage to Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire while listening to a Frank Sinatra recording of “I Won’t Dance.”
Neither highlight has much to do with the defective thrust of the plot, which requires extreme doses of the supernatural while observing Mr. Gibson stew and scheme as a Chicago advertising executive and aging playboy, Nick Marshall, no longer certain of his status when company owner Dan Wanamaker (Alan Alda) hires an outsider, Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt), as advertising director.
The choice isn’t unreasonable. Wanamaker feels his agency lags way behind in appealing to a $40 billion women’s market. Known around the office as a ladies’ man, Nick looks vulnerable to revised priorities. The newcomer makes him more suspicious by handing out a sample box of womanly products as a preamble to staff brainstorming.
While goofing around at home with mascara, pantyhose and other items, Nick slips and bumps his head, then tumbles into the bathtub, shallowly cushioned with water, along with an active hair dryer.
This overcalculated brush with electrocution supposedly endows the survivor with astonishing extrasensory powers, revealed the next morning. He can hear the thoughts of women. (Not that the babble is all that edifying; Miss Meyer tends to emphasize vain musings and lecherous quips.)
Nevertheless, Nick discovers a brain-picking edge at work. He insinuates himself with Darcy until he has shaken her confidence and purloined a campaign for Nike that duplicates the “No Limits” promotion.
Two puzzlers arise: Why would Nike be so impressed with this reprise, and why do the filmmakers find it essential to treat Nike with near reverence?
While sneakily undermining Darcy’s position, Nick also begins to fall in love with her, setting the stage for an honorable confession, so belated that it barely beats the fade-out.
Their tentative, threadbare romance splits ill-spent time with haphazard and arguably expendable subplots: Nick’s seduction of a susceptible coffee-shop clerk, Lola (the recently neglected Marisa Tomei, still playing lovelorn chumps), and his custodianship of a teen-age daughter, Alex (Ashley Johnson), whose disdain changes to gratitude when he rescues her from potential disgrace at a high school prom.
Although it’s ostensibly a farce, “What Women Want” somehow fails to make Nick’s crowded agenda look as funny as Ray Liotta’s crowded schedule in the final stages of “GoodFellas.”
Miss Meyer’s previous comedy, the remake of “The Parent Trap,” was one of the most charming and satisfying movies of the past decade. Ironically, it seems to have anticipated her own breakup with spouse and collaborator Charles Shyer. “What Women Want” may reflect a certain residue from that misfortune.