The premise of What Women Want (2000) is so blindingly obvious that I wondered why it has not been made prior to 2000. Turns out there are other iterations of this title, but this is the one with which I am familiar. The reason for my curiosity stems from something that I think everyone has wanted at one point in their lives: the ability to hear the thoughts of another. One might think this could be the solution to all of our communication problems. The spoken word can so often be a poor attempt at conveying the things that are on our minds. As you can probably guess from this blog, my preferred mode is through writing. Cinema seems to suggest that more often such abilities will lead to some kind of disaster. Outside of this one, the only other movie example I can think of where people have this kind of telepathy is Chaos Walking (2021). Aside from being a terrible film, the characters getting the window into each other’s brains is the downfall of their society. What Women Want puts this gift in a comedic light, though it comes with much more valuable lessons.
What Women Want is not about a woman, but about male chauvinist named Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson). He works for an advertising firm in Chicago, and has a reputation for seducing women. He is successful, not just in his dating life, but at the firm he works for, Sloane Curtis. Such are his plaudits that he expects to get a raise. This is when his boss, Dan Wanamaker (Alan Alda), informs Nick that they are bringing in somebody else for the position of creative director, the position he hoped to fill. This person is a woman, Dan’s attempt to diversify their appeal, and her name is Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt). She comes with the reputation of being much more forward thinking in her views on feminism, and immediately Nick is offput. To further his uncomfortable feelings, Nick is given a box of feminine products, along with the rest of his co-workers, in order to get them thinking about how best to market these items to women. Because Nick’s first interactions with Darcy included her incredulity as to his worthiness as an employee given the company’s new direction, he decides to give his full attention to this assignment. Where he errs is doing so at home with access to his liquor cabinet, which results in him slipping in the bathtub with the hair dryer and electrocuting himself. When he comes to, the first thing he hears is the sound of the maid the next morning cleaning up around the house. He takes what he hears as her talking, but what he is actually catching is her inner thoughts. Still not understanding his newfound powers, he heads to work and is confused by the extra noise, particularly coming from the women he passes. Seeking answers, he consults his therapist, Dr. J. M. Parker (Bette Midler). In the course of their interactions, it comes out the she is not his biggest fan, but when he confronts her on this, she gets him to realize the incredible gift that he has been granted. Unfortunately, Nick’s immediate use for this ability is to do a number of awful things. At a nearby coffee shop there is a good-looking woman named Lola (Marisa Tomei) with whom Nick has been flirting. Armed with her thoughts, he uses them to seduce her into a one-night stand. His most devious plan, though, is to usurp Darcy. Instead of acting standoffish, Nick spends as much time as he can with the new creative director. While doing so, he gleans ideas from her mind and passes them off as his own. In the process, he begins to have a change of heart in his attitudes towards women. Part of this is prompted by his attempts to get closer to his teenaged daughter, Alex (Ashley Johnson), who is staying with him while his ex-wife is on her honeymoon with her new husband. He listens to her thoughts in an attempt to break the ice in their frosty relationship. It proves difficult, though, when she does not want to take his advice about not sleeping with her boyfriend at prom. As for Darcy, things come to a head when Nick gets the credit for a major advertising campaign that they land with Nike, which causes Dan to fire Darcy. Because Nick has developed feelings for Darcy, he goes to Dan to get him to change his mind. At the same time, he hears the suicidal musings of one of the office copygirls, Erin (Judy Greer), and resolves to go to her apartment to prevent a tragedy. On the way there, in the rain he witnesses a transformer struck by lightning, and the sparks landing in the puddle in which he is standing take away his ability. Still, he is able to stop Erin from offing herself. When he gets home, he finds that Alex has taken his advice after all, and they reconcile. His last act is to go see Darcy and admit everything. Doing so causes her to fire him, but they seem to be happy in the end.
I have to confess to wishing to have the ability that Nick is given in What Women Want. It was an immature reaction on my part because I would have probably done what Nick does with Lola. The result of their tryst is her confronting him wild-eyed after weeks of no contact. I like to think that I would have at least tried to form a relationship, but who knows? This is all hypothetical anyway. The thing that I try to take away from a film like this now that I am a practicing Catholic is that such things, if they were real, should be seen as a gift from God. God has granted his saints some incredible abilities. There are almost too many to recount, but since Shia LaBeouf is currently filming a movie about St. Pio of Pietrelcina, known more commonly as Padre Pio, why not him? Actually, there are a number of incredible aspects about his life, but perhaps the most incredible one is his ability to bi-locate. In other words, he could be in two places at once. Be as incredulous as you like, but then again I am talking about this in relation to a movie about a man who can hear the thoughts of women. Padre Pio’s gift had a more tangible intersection with my life when I was studying for my Ph.D. at Loyola University Chicago. During that time, I did a project on a poor Mexican parish on the East Side of Aurora, Illinois, called Sacred Heart. I spent a lot of time there, and its pastor once told me stories of Mexicans coming over the border into the United States and being led to safety by Padre Pio. It was the first time I heard the name, and I did not think much of it until I realized that Pietrelcina is in Italy. Nick uses his gifts for good to save Erin’s life. You do not have to have telepathy or bilocation to do good deeds. God gives us everything we need.
There is much about What Women Want that is dated, but I recommend it all the same. The whole Lola fiasco is unfortunate, and his excuse for getting out of it is not the most enlightened of positions. In short, he says he is gay and acts in a derogatory manner. Outside of that scene, though, there are some solid lessons to be gleaned from a film such as this one. Anyway, you could do worse.