2013’s repellent Machete Kills was so enamored of stunt-casting and mindless shock that it created a disguise artist known as “El Camaleón” solely for the sake of casting four big names (Walton Goggins, Antonio Banderas, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Lady Gaga) in the same pointlessly flashy role. The film also aimed for a big, knowing chuckle with a credit “introducing Carlos Estevez,” better known as Charlie Sheen.
Yet of all the big-name stars winking knowingly at audiences, the only one who registers is Mel Gibson as an insane arms dealer with dreams of world domination. The role was noteworthy because it marked the first time Gibson played a villain onscreen, but also because of how awful Gibson looked. He didn’t resemble a man who at one point was a safe choice for People’ s Sexiest Man Alive; he looked old, tired, creepy, and worn-out. It was as if he had held back the aging process for decades, and then the cruelty of age abruptly hit him with its full force. He was Dorian Gray, and suddenly the beautiful man who never seemed to age was a decrepit ghoul whose exterior matched his interior.
As played by Gibson, arms dealer Luther Voz isn’t just a bad guy: He’s a bona fide supervillain, the kind that requires a superhero or a super-agent just to maintain a sense of equilibrium in the pop-culture universe. Gibson plays Voz as a wide-eyed cross between Darth Vader and Hugo Drax, the heavy who tangled with James Bond in Moonraker. The casting seemed on the nose, considering that in Heaven & Mel, Joe Eszterhas’ hyperbolic, self-aggrandizing memoir of his doomed attempt to make a “Jewish Braveheart” with the infamous anti-Semite, Gibson emerges as something of a supervillain. As depicted by Eszterhas, Gibson is an utterly amoral man with his own island, a vast fortune, and the power to exert his sinister will on the world. The Mel Gibson chronicled in Heaven & Mel seems like someone who would have a nuclear missile pointed at the Eastern seaboard, and his own private army of mercenaries.
At this point, it’s easier to buy Gibson as a deranged supervillain than as an everyman in a sympathetic role. He’s strayed too far from the outer limits of acceptable behavior to depict the kind of heroes that were once his specialty. He’s believable only when playing the crazy, evil, or profoundly broken.
If Gibson wants to work in movies he didn’t personally write and finance (the way he did The Passion Of The Christ and his pretty solid 2012 direct-to-video-on-demand comeback vehicle Get The Gringo), he needs to find roles in which both the film industry and audiences will accept him. Judging by Machete Kills and his upcoming role as the villain in Expendables 3, that means playing the bad guy onscreen as well as off. The price Gibson increasingly pays for continuing to work are roles that comment, cheekily and otherwise, on his dreadful reputation and violent temper. That makes him hard to imagine as a romantic-comedy lead. It’s even harder to imagine a Mel Gibson romantic comedy being the fifth-top-grossing film of its year, as What Women Want was in 2000. According to Box Office Mojo, the film grossed more than $370 million worldwide, trailing trailing only How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Cast Away, Mission: Impossible II, and Gladiator.
The notion that a man like Mel Gibson would be privy to the private thoughts of all the women in the world now feels like the blueprint for a feminist nightmare, but in 2000, the premise was irresistible to a goodly percentage of the moviegoing public. Directed by Nancy Meyers, What Women Want casts Gibson as the kind of incorrigible bad boy who leaves a trail of broken hearts in his wake, but is just waiting to be redeemed by the love of a good woman who can see past his leering, superficial façade.
In his romantic prime, Gibson oozed charm, but that charm now looks like the overcompensation of a con artist, drug addict, or cult leader. Now, it feels like a form of dishonesty. But in 2000, it made the creaky, gimmicky trifle What Women Want into an international box-office sensation.
I went into What Women Want with one central question: Would it be possible to watch a movie wholly dependent on Mel Gibson’s likability, and forget everything that’s since rendered Gibson a pariah? Would I be able to watch him romance a woman onscreen without thinking of publicly released tapes of him screaming racist abuse at his child’s mother? Would the charming movie star with the million-dollar smile trump the tormented man whose hatred for minorities, women, and himself now defines him nearly as much as the iconic blockbuster hits he racked up in the ’80s and ’90s? Yes, actually. It’s entirely possible to get lost in the dopey, idiotic, soft-sell fantasy of What Women Want. That’s what fluffy movies like What Women Want do: They sell fantasies so fizzy and irresistible, they’re immune to the outside world’s complications and creepiness.
The Chicago advertising world isn’t just the setting of What Women Want, it also provides the dominant aesthetic; the film has the glossy quality of a two-hour commercial for itself. But the film does make time to shill shamelessly for Nike, which figures prominently in the plot, and is described by the female lead as embodying “state of the art, hardcore woman power,” as if the shoe company has a longstanding reputation as the Pussy Riot of athletic-shoe companies.
The film opens with Gigi (Lauren Holly), the ex-wife of Mel Gibson’s Nick Marshall, telling her girlfriends about the kind of man her ex-husband was, with barely concealed joy in her voice, “You know the expression ‘a man’s man’? A man’s man is the leader of the pack. The kind of man other men look up to, admire, and emulate. A man’s man is the kind of man who just doesn’t get what women are about.” Meanwhile, Nick’s sullen teenage daughter Alex (Ashley Johnson) and Nick’s assistant Annie (Sarah Paulson) are also separately telling people about the legend of Nick Marshall, a young man who was raised by a pack of wild showgirls and grew up to be the world’s greatest womanizer, a man whose seduction technique inspires awe in his fellow man and naked lust in women.
Before Gibson appears onscreen, he already has a legend. His womanizing even has an origin story. But for all their censure and awe, Gigi, Alex, and Annie are all describing a groaning cliché: the womanizing cad overdue for a humbling, a guy who, in Annie’s words, is “like this total bachelor, and the least politically correct guy in the universe.” Nick is headed for a fall, but for the first 20 minutes of the film, the world belongs to him. He wakes up with telltale lipstick marks on his cheek in a swinging bachelor pad, and trades saucy banter with a maid who seems to view his chauvinism as a delightful quirk, though when he calls her “babe,” she retorts, “Babe? What am I, a little pig?” At the office, meanwhile, Nick delights some female co-workers by joking, “You know the difference between a wife and a job? After 10 years, a job still sucks!” He helpfully urges a slightly chubby secretary not to eat a fattening pastry, out of concern for her figure. Such impressive people skills have Nick convinced he’s in line for the big promotion that’s going to be announced that day.
What Women Want begins in a manner similar to the previous Forgotbusters entry Disclosure: with a rampaging alpha male, played by a rampaging alpha male, showing up to work expecting a big promotion, then discovering that even though he earned it by virtue of having a penis (oh, and maybe working hard or something), the job has been given to a woman. And not just any woman, mind you: an extremely sexually desirable woman, with whom the protagonist has sex.
But where Disclosure took the form of a techno-thriller vibrating with anxiety over the destructive power of aggressive female sexuality (though not to the extent of the loathsome Michael Crichton novel it adapts), What Women Want is a fluffy angora sweater of a romantic comedy. So Darcy (Helen Hunt), the boss darkly whispered about as a “bitch on wheels,” turns out to be a sexy earth-mother in flowing, low-cut blouses and Ally McBeal-style short skirts. And at the first sign of professional adversity, she all but volunteers to leave the advertising field and go nurture sick puppies. She’s a female boss even the most vicious misogynist would have a hard time resenting.
But that doesn’t keep Nick from stewing when she orders her overwhelmingly male co-workers to channel their feminine side by trying out a series of products designed for women, like pantyhose and girdles. So one magical night, Nick is at home, doing what men do—drinking red wine, smoking cigarettes, and watching sports, pretty much—when he decides to throw himself into Darcy’s homework with drunken, unwise conviction. So he pulls a Meredith Brooks CD out of his daughter’s bag (“She’s hot,” he reasons), and against the backdrop of “Bitch,” the film’s version of an angry feminist anthem, he strips down, waxes his legs, tries on a girdle and pantyhose, and embraces his inner drag queen.
But then Nick’s professionally motivated cross-dressing goes awry, and he electrocutes himself in a bathtub, with predictable consequences: He gains the ability to read women’s thoughts. Movies like What Women Want live or die based on the scientific grounding of their magical conceits. For example, audiences rejected the Jason Bateman/Ryan Reynolds vehicle The Change-Up not because the film was somehow substandard, but because even those with a basic understanding of magic know that pissing in a fountain at the same time as another man wouldn’t necessarily cause you to switch places with him. It doesn’t make logical sense, so audiences were right to reject the film. Thankfully, rigorous third-party testing has indicated that listening to Meredith Brooks while cross-dressing and being electrocuted does often lead to previously unknown telekinetic abilities. I’m pretty sure Mythbusters did an episode on it. On that level, at least, What Women Want is unimpeachable.
This newfound ability to read women’s thoughts instills something approaching madness in Nick. Returning to the office, he discovers the insincerity behind the strained smiles of the women reacting to his extreme sexism. To Nick’s shock and horror, it turns out women don’t love hearing sexist jokes at work, and actually resent being food-policed.
Gibson plays Nick as a cross between Cary Grant and the Three Stooges. In womanizing mode, he’s all breezy confidence and cocky charm. But when confronted with supernatural hooey, he turns into a bug-eyed, flailing lunatic. What Women Want makes Nick’s road to redemption ridiculously easy. The mere firsthand knowledge that women enjoy being treated like human beings gets Nick to transform into a more considerate, thoughtful person. What Women Want sometimes feels like a dumbed-down, supernatural version of Tootsie. In Sydney Pollack’s 1982 classic, Dustin Hoffman becomes a better man and comes to understand women better by living as one. In What Women Want, being privy to the private thoughts of women gives Nick a better understanding of the struggles women face.
The film sets the bar ridiculously low for Nick. When he tells the easily impressed Darcy during the course of their Nike strategizing that their target customer is “thinking about what she wants out of life” because “women worry all the time,” her response isn’t a sarcastic, “No shit, Sherlock. Tell me more about these mysterious ‘women.’ Do they also breathe and eat, and enjoy looking at puppies?” but rather an astonished, impressed, “You’re so right. How did you know that?” as if he had just shared secret wisdom, not aching banality.
As this man’s man lives among women, he learns that they like to make salads, watch Friends, and have men pay attention to them. In the process, Nick evolves from a caveman to a fellow who might be able to pass as a reasonably progressive dad in 1959.
Meyers gives the film an appealingly zippy, retro sensibility that hearkens back to the war-of-the-sexes comedies of Doris Day and Rock Hudson and the attitude of the Rat Pack, whose swinging sounds dominate the soundtrack. She gives the film the appealing surface of sophistication, without any actual substance, her slick, overachieving direction putting an upscale spin on lowbrow idiocy. The film doesn’t have a thought in its pretty little head, but it looks fantastic.
Gibson’s performance is charming enough to inspire temporary amnesia about the last decade in his career. When he tipsily dances to Frank Sinatra crooning, “I Won’t Dance,” it’s easy to focus on the charismatic movie star from Mad Max and Lethal Weapon, not the screaming man of the covertly taped conversations. What Women Want is a reminder of what made Gibson a movie star in the first place.
There are only a few moments when his offscreen notoriety casts an ironic shadow over his onscreen actions—when Nick accepts a yarmulke as a gift from his assistant’s Israeli boyfriend, or gets out of hurting a sexy, fragile, and neurotic barista (Marisa Tomei) by pretending to be gay. In these moments, it’s tough not to consider the actor behind the thinly conceived character, but for the most part What Women Want works swimmingly as brainless commercial product.
Because of the nature of Forgotbusters, I often wrestle with the bifurcated nature of the movies I’m covering, as works of art/entertainment, and as commercial products that must have succeeded on a pretty massive scale to qualify for the column. As a movie, What Women Want isn’t much, but I respect it as a commercial enterprise. Meyers managed to make a movie so goofily appealing and divorced from reality that even after all that has transpired, it’s still able to pass off a Mel Gibson character as Mr. Right. That represents an achievement at least as impressive as being one of its year’s top five grossing films. What Women Want makes it possible to turn back time and get back the old Mel Gibson who charmed the world. That’s the tacky but real magic of cinema, which can be found even in trifles as frothy and ephemeral as this one.
Next: Wild Hogs