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Saturday, Jan. 20, 2001

'WHAT WOMEN WANT'

Do you really wanna know?


So it's said that Freud's dying words were: "What do women want?" Whether any female on the premises answered: "I'll tell you, only if you'll give it to me," is unknown, but the point is, women are a mystery. Even to the greatest of minds, not to mention our own.

Frankly, however, I get the feeling that we've become bored by all the ruminating and speculating. Girlfriends say that when they have a spare hour, they spend it on a foot massage, which is far less expensive and so much more rewarding than an hour on the couch. Ah, if only I was at Herr Doktor's bedside when he asked that question. I could have told him, gently but firmly: "Listen Doc, who the hell cares?"

To my shame, filmmaker Nancy Meyers cared. So much that she made a movie called "What Women Want" (released in Japan as "Heart of Woman") and plopped Mel Gibson right in the center like the biggest, reddest strawberry on a huge, pink cake. Grab a fork girls, says this movie. Dig right in. And after the last bite, we may have arrived at some form of self-knowledge, a logical conclusive nugget of wisdom that answers Freud's question. If you believe that, you'll believe anything.

Still, "What Women Want" deserves credit, since this is the most politically correct movie I've ever seen -- not an easy feat. It's designed and executed in such a way that no woman, regardless of age, race or social position, should feel left out from the onscreen psychoanalytical probings of their heart's desires. Unless you're a 10-year-old Laplander who miraculously has never heard of the word "prom," you will supposedly find yourself betwixt the scenes of "What Women Want" and sigh with contentment: There I am, and that's what I want. Herr Doktor, this is what you're missing in the 21st century.

Briefly, the story is this: Nick (Gibson), a successful ad creator at a swank agency and "a chauvinist macho prick" in the eyes of his female staff, is called into the boss' office. Nick thinks this is about a long-awaited promotion to creative director and gets ready to hand out the cigars and break open the champagne (Nick is that kinda guy).

But surprise, suprise -- a woman has been hired out of a rival agency for that very job. Nick is told that he's too much of a "man's man," meaning his idea of a good ad is the Swedish bikini team. He doesn't understand enough about women's needs to tap into this gazillion-dollar consumer market.

Nick is ready to hate the new director, Darcy (Helen Hunt), who is smart, pretty and capable. She's good at pep talks, marathon meetings, ad copy with a feminine touch. Nick seethes at his own disabilities, but there's little he can do except go home loaded with the how-to-think-like-a-woman homework, assigned by Helen.

That night, Nick has an electrical accident involving his tub and hair dryer. When he wakes up, it is to the realization that he can actually hear what women are thinking, their innermost secrets and desires. At first this scares him, especially thoughts like "You got a real cute backside, baby" from Flo, his African-American doorwoman (Loretta Devine). But then, Nick decides this is his lucky break. Now he can pick the brains of Darcy without her realizing it, and steal her ideas straight out of her mind.

What Nick hadn't bargained for, of course, is that Darcy is a warm and charming person with warm and charming thoughts. As he gradually falls for her, he comes to realize what a disgusting, degrading, scum-of-the-earth sleazebag he and most men are in comparison.

He wants to make it up to her. In fact, he wants to make it up to all the women around him, including his assistant (Lisa Edelstein), office errand girl (Judy Greer) and his estranged teenage daughter (Ashley Johnson). Nick resolves to change his ways. No more cheating, lying, fooling around. Women are too good for that.

While the movie probably expects female audiences to exchange high-fives in the theater, awash in the glow of solidarity and shared emotions, it ultimately fails to convince us of the veracity of its title. All the things that Darcy wants and gets are very nice (a stud muffin partner who "understands" her, a luxurious apartment purchased on her very own, a satisfying and challenging career) but in a fantastical love story with mega-budget, shouldn't she be allowed to aim a little higher?

It's like being promised a shopping trip to Cartier's and being taken to the Red Creek Mall instead. You look and look and everything on the shelves has a disappointing familiarity, picked up and put back, many times before.

So. I guess the foot massage wins again.

"What Women Want" opens Jan. 27 at Nihon Gekijo in Yurakucho and other theaters.


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