Tough guy Mel Gibson has played lightly comic roles before, but never has he been the lead in a romantic comedy. He makes a great “debut” in What Women Want.
A New Boss
Big, one of Penny Marshall's few films, and a breakthrough role for very big star Tom Hanks.
Gibson plays an ad man at a prestigious Chicago firm. He’s most proud of the work he did on the “Swedish Bikini Team” beer ads of the ’80s. Those are the ads that really reflected his own personality.
But those sexist days are over. Women are the new power demographic, and his new boss (Helen Hunt) wants him to focus on marketing to women. She wants him to market pantyhose, hair remover, lipstick, mousse — anything at all, just so long as he targets women.
A New Man
A magical twist of fate makes Mr. Misogynist suddenly able to hear women’s thoughts. He’s never taken women too seriously before, so he’s a little scared about hearing what they think. For example, his maid resents him for being so childish, and his “doorman” (a woman) thinks he’s a fine piece of meat. Most of the women at work thinks he’s a sexist, chauvinist pig, even if he is kinda cute.
What Women Want’s magical setup has been done before. Groundhog Day and Big are two like-minded comedies from 7 and 12 years ago, respectively. In this kind of movie, the magical twist can be interpreted as Fate challenging the hero. The hero may have fun for a while, but the supernatural gift inevitably becomes a curse that can’t be beaten by sheer will. The only way to meet Fate’s challenge is with resignation. The only way to overcome it is to change your way of life.
For example, in Groundhog Day, Bill Murray had to learn that greed is only temporarily satisfying, that charity and generosity are their own reward. In What Women Want, Mel Gibson has to learn to change his sexist ways. He has to learn to respect everyone, and he has to learn empathy and understanding.
This film’s positive message, that the cosmos cares about respect and understanding between the sexes, is only part of what raises it above average. The other is Mel Gibson’s charming, effervescent, funny performance. He really throws himself into the role, putting on makeup, sliding into pantyhose, and dancing with a coat rack to Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “I Won’t Dance.” Gibson sells this movie by pouring into it his heart and his soul. But not too much of his pride.