When Romance Met ComedyWith When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.
For the second-highest-grossing romantic comedy ever made, What Women Want hasn’t had much cultural staying power. The Mel Gibson-Helen Hunt vehicle mostly feels like a relic from a very different era, but it’s back in the consciousness again thanks to the recently released What Men Want , a gender-flipped reimagining starring Taraji P. Henson. So what’s it like to revisit What Women Want 19 years later? Well, it’s mostly a reminder that 2000 was a very long time ago. What Women Want isn’t exactly a problematic mess—or at least not nearly as much as it could’ve been. Its “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” jokes are rather stale (there’s an extended sequence where the whole joke is just that Gibson is wearing tights and nail polish), but those gags were dismissed as stale even in contemporaneous reviews of the film. In other ways, however, rewatching What Women Want through modern eyes raises some uncomfortably meta questions about who gets redemption arcs.
It’s really hard to revisit What Women Want without revisiting the troubled legacy of Mel Gibson. (His Icon Productions company also co-produced the film.) What Women Want is Gibson’s second-highest-grossing film as an actor, behind only Signs , which was released two years later and served as both the peak and the last hurrah of Gibson’s run as a beloved leading man. He went on to find massive box office success but also quite a bit of controversy as the writer and director of 2004’s The Passion Of The Christ . Then he made some virulently anti-Semitic remarks while being arrested for drunk driving in 2006, and a few years later, was recorded making some shockingly violent and racist threats to his girlfriend. His career appeared to be over.
Except then it wasn’t. Gibson crept back into acting roles as lovable rogues in the Expendables franchise and Daddy’s Home 2 . He earned massive critical praise for directing 2016’s Hacksaw Ridge , and happily attended the Academy Awards, where he was able to bathe in the glory of the film’s six nominations, including one for Best Director. He currently has several acting roles, a Passion Of The Christ sequel, and a Wild Bunch remake on the docket. In a 2018 Vox article, Constance Grady argues that Mel Gibson established the blueprint for “a #MeToo comeback,” which other publicly disgraced men can now follow. So, yes, watching a film where Gibson plays a horrific human being who’s redeemed for exhibiting the bare minimum of decency isn’t exactly what I’d call rom-com comfort food in 2019. Although What Women Want sets out to be a movie about how important it is for men to listen to and empathize with women, in the end it plays more like a movie about how easy it is for men to be forgiven for their past transgressions.
Gibson stars as Nick Marshall, a misogynistic Chicago advertising executive and “man’s man” who’s magically granted the ability to hear women’s thoughts and gets a rude wakeup call about what they actually think of him. It’s a promising, if goofy, premise, and the film’s best scenes come in its first half, as Nick gets a crash course in the female psyche. (That includes overhearing a French-accented miniature poodle demand of its owner, “Monsieur, I need to poop!” which is a supremely dumb joke that never fails to make me laugh.) When we first see Nick strut through the office, he seems to be the king of the castle, effortlessly charming every woman he meets. When he makes that same walk with his new power, however, Nick realizes that almost every woman in his office secretly hates him. They feign laughter at his grossly sexist jokes and remain polite when he treats them as assistants, not colleagues. Internally, though, they’re ripping him to shreds. Even those who are won over by his suave good looks know he’s an asshole. Nick thinks he’s manipulating the world, but it’s more like the world is begrudgingly bending to appease him.
It’s a smart use of the film’s conceit, with plenty of meaty stuff to dig into—more so than in What Men Want, actually, where Henson’s character mostly just gets confirmation that the boys’ club mentality she’d long ago noticed at her sports agency is, in fact, real. And in its best moments, What Women Want is fairly insightful about the polite face women are forced to put on at work so as to not ruffle the feathers of their male bosses and coworkers.
Yet What Women Want is also pretty confused. As an explanation for Nick’s misogyny, the film features a cheeky prologue about the fact that his mother was a Las Vegas showgirl and Nick grew up backstage, coddled by scantily clad maternal figures. What Women Want takes it as a given that growing up in a female-heavy environment where his only male role models regularly sexually harassed his mom would automatically turn Nick into a cruel misogynist, which certainly doesn’t strike me as a natural chain of events. (The wonderful Support The Girls has, I think, a much more realistic portrait of what it might be like to be a young boy growing up among women in an environment where their sexuality is commodified.) It’s also a little strange how baffled Nick later seems to be by mascara and pantyhose given that he grew up in a women’s dressing room.
The film’s most confused element is Darcy McGuire (a reliably endearing Helen Hunt), Nick’s boss and eventual love interest, who’s hired by the ad agency to reach the ever-growing market of female consumers that Nick has so far failed to capture with his “tits and ass” approach to advertising. Nick first hears rumors that Darcy is a “bitch on wheels,” but when she finally shows up, she’s actually preternaturally kind and thoughtful. It’s a sharp commentary on how easily successful women can earn reputations for being the “man-eating Darth Vader of the ad world,” no matter how gently and supportively they give feedback to their male employees. In fact, it’s Darcy’s slight timidity about giving her opinion and speaking her mind that allows Nick to swoop in and steal her ideas as part of his plan to sabotage her career and steal her job.
Yet as Darcy and Nick begin to fall for each other, the film introduces a second through-line about the fact that Darcy’s personal life is a mess because men are so put off by her no-nonsense frankness. What Women Want sometimes talks about Darcy as if she’s an icy Miranda Priestly whose vulnerable inner monologue only Nick can understand, which doesn’t really jibe with her reticence and selflessness elsewhere. Either could be a compelling insight into the way women adapt to survive in a professional setting, but they don’t particularly make sense co-existing in one character, at least not in the relatively little screentime Darcy is given.
Darcy is definitely the most Nancy Meyers-ish element of a film that otherwise feels like a bit of an outlier in the director’s career as a major creative force in the romantic comedy genre. It wasn’t until her next film, Something’s Gotta Give , that Meyers would solidify her white-turtleneck, giant-kitchen aesthetic, but her penchant for giving lovably neurotic, usually divorced women a “you can have it all” happy ending is already on display in What Women Want. Technically, this is the only one of Meyers’ directorial efforts for which she’s not also the credited screenwriter. According to a 2000 Entertainment Weekly profile, however, Meyers heavily reworked the original script by King Of Queens producers Cathy Yuspa and Josh Goldsmith, and added most of the film’s major female characters herself. (Yuspa refutes that, claiming their “first draft was basically the movie.”)
Darcy certainly feels like a Meyers heroine, but the movie struggles to create a love interest worthy of her. Nick’s transformation from active misogynist to enlightened man happens way too fast, and is way too easily accepted by the women he spent years mistreating. There’s actually a brief scene where What Women Want seems to intentionally comment on how frustratingly easy it can be for men to earn redemption narratives. When Nick first meets the friends of his 15-year-old daughter, Alex (Ashley Johnson), they hurl mental disdain his way because he’s been such an absentee dad. After offering to buy them pizza and take Alex prom-dress shopping, however, their hearts instantly melt and they’re ready to declare him father of the year.
It’s a funny, pointed sequence that the film then echoes without the satirical bite as it tries to sell us on Nick’s redemption with the same ease with which he wins over Alex’s friends. A big part of Nick’s redemption comes when he rushes to the prom to comfort Alex after she’s been publicly humiliated by her jerky older boyfriend for refusing to sleep with him. It’s a really sweet scene, beautifully played by both Johnson and Gibson. But does ignoring his daughter for 15 years, forgetting she was even going to prom that night, and then rushing to help her only after his ex-wife calls to ask him to actually make Nick a good dad? The film seems to argue it does, and while that’s partially just the storytelling shortcutting of a big studio comedy (most rom-coms tend to rush their emotional timelines), it also uncomfortably echoes how often basic parenting tasks are treated like acts of heroism when fathers do them.
Even worse is Nick’s relationship with Darcy, a woman he’s simultaneously trying to date and sabotage right up until the last minute. (He’s also stringing along Marisa Tomei’s ditzy coffee shop girl most of this time as well, in the film’s most embarrassingly bad subplot.) The climactic scene where Nick comes clean to Darcy was originally supposed to be a more heightened comedic blowout in which Darcy punches him in the face, but Hunt felt that resolution was too pat. Meyers kept writing and rewriting the ending all through production, and eventually settled on a bizarrely subdued wrap-up where Nick admits to stealing Darcy’s ideas (without ever explaining his mind-reading powers or how he was able to steal ideas she’d never voiced aloud), and then the two of them decide to stay together anyway because it turns out Darcy is Nick’s knight in shining armor, not the other way around.
It’s a clunky resolution that the film desperately tries to frame as a big win for Darcy, who lands a man who loves her because of her outspokenness and success, not despite it. Yet given that Nick didn’t develop basic empathy until literally a day earlier, it’s hard not to feel like their relationship is more of a consolation prize than a happy ending. The film tries to temper Nick’s win by having it come at the cost of his job—Darcy essentially fires Nick as an employee, but keeps him around as a boyfriend—but the whole ending still lands with a thud. What Women Want fails to show its work in its increasingly slow and ponderous second half, which is where Nick theoretically comes to the big realization that, hey, women are people, too.
Despite its pacing problems and lackluster climax, What Women Want isn’t without its charms, particularly in the heightened but recognizably human naturalism that would come to be Meyers’ defining style. True, it doesn’t make much sense that when looking to recapture his stereotypical machismo, Nick decides to put on a Frank Sinatra record and do an elaborate soft-shoe routine around his apartment. But there’s no doubt that the dance break is charming as hell, the sort of fantastical musical indulgence the romantic comedy genre is so great at delivering. Indeed, Gibson himself is charming as hell in this movie. Yet there’s something uncomfortable about that, too. In Hollywood, men who are known to be reprehensible can often be redeemed with charm, even as women who do nothing more than express an opinion are so often labeled “difficult.”
Perhaps the failings of What Women Want wouldn’t bother me as much if they didn’t so perfectly dovetail with Gibson’s real-life redemption arc (and the redemption arcs of an endless number of problematic men in Hollywood). As it stands, however, What Women Want’s biggest insight might be its most unintentional one: In so many areas of life and love, the bar seems to be set awfully low for powerful men.
Next time: Pretty Woman changed the romantic comedy genre forever.