In What Men Want, the gender-flipped reboot of 2000’s What Women Want, Taraji P. Henson’s character magically gains the power to read men’s minds. But if I’m reading your mind correctly, the new movie’s arrival has you curious about how well the original holds up—but not so curious you’re willing to sit through a Mel Gibson romantic comedy (eesh), let alone a Mel Gibson rom-com that billed itself as an exploration of the differences between the sexes (double eesh). Never fear, for I rewatched WWW in all its turn-of-the-millennium, cable-TV-staple-of-a-certain-era glory and am prepared to share my findings here, saving your schedule valuable time and your eyes from having to see Gibson’s pantyhose-clad gams. Here we go:
Yes, it’s super dated. God, when was the year 2000 anyway, the ’80s? As with many movies in the pre-cellphone era, crucial plot developments in What Women Want depend on an answering machine. (Gibson does actually pull out an ancient cellphone at one point though, keep your eyes peeled for it.) The film finds Gibson sporting a hideous roster of leather jackets, trench coats, and power suits tailored to their tacky, year-2000 fullest. And most shockingly to me, throughout the movie, Gibson smokes with abandon—I couldn’t believe I was watching the main character of a big-budget, mainstream rom-com casually smoking without it being remarked upon, even if it was supposed to be in service of his character’s cad reputation. Contrast this to 2019, when What Men Want had no problem listing E and crack as ingredients in Erykah Badu’s psychically powerful tea, but nary a character smokes a cigarette.
Its gender politics are not great, but they’re not as bad as you might expect. Let’s state right off the bat that the premise is condescending: Isn’t 2000 a little late to make a movie about how women are an important consumer demographic? That said, this is a movie about a horrible, toxic man learning how horrible and toxic he is, and it’s somewhat admirably interested in breaking down a few of the more harmful aspects of traditional masculinity. Most of the overt displays of sexism in the movie are coded as bad: The audience understands that Gibson’s character, Nick Marshall, is an asshole when he warns a female colleague she might not want to take a bite of that breakfast pastry, or describes a professional acquaintance as a “bitch on wheels.” Ditto for the character’s absentee dad act and treatment of his romantic interests.
That’s not to say things don’t get a little muddled sometimes: Marisa Tomei’s character asks Gibson’s to stop asking her out, but when he starts reading minds, it turns out her “no” isn’t so firm after all. If this was a mixed signal at the time, post-#MeToo, it implies that no can sometimes mean yes, and it’s icky to watch on screen. Of course, the whole idea of using mind-reading to get a woman into bed is also a pretty clear violation of consent. Pretending to be gay to get out of having to see said woman again is also, obviously, not an ideal way to end a relationship. What was played for laughs at the time—Mel Gibson, gay? P’shaw!—now just seems cruel and offensive.
Nick’s romance with Hunt’s character, Darcy, is, in typical rom-com fashion, based on a foundation of lies, but that said, he really does seem to gain respect for her in the end, which is nice. Still, it’s Mel Gibson, and it’s hard to lose sight of who you’re watching enact all the lovey-dovey stuff: someone who’s notorious for his 2006 anti-Semitic tirade, sexism, racism, and allegations of domestic abuse. No one would blame you for not wanting to watch that guy put the moves on Tomei and Hunt.
We also mustn’t forget to acknowledge the sexism in the plotline with Nick’s teenage daughter. As the 2018 comedy Blockers taught us, it’s not cool for parents to police their teenage daughters’ virginity, and the lesson that older boys only want them for one reason is retrograde. Of course, Gibson forgets his daughter exists for much of the movie, so it’s not a point the film hits too hard.
This movie’s cast is bonkers. Notables in What Women Want include Alan Alda, Mark Feuerstein, Sarah Paulson in one of her earliest roles, a brunette Judy Greer, Bette Midler (!), Delta Burke (!!), Lisa Edelstein, Ana Gasteyer, and Loretta Divine. Now that’s what I call an ensemble. Seriously, everyone is in this movie. It even has Eric Balfour as Cameron, the boyfriend of Gibson’s character’s teenage daughter, who you will recognize from playing almost the exact same bad-boy role in Six Feet Under, The O.C., and who knows how many other movies and shows of this period.
… but it’s also a little rough to reflect on. I’m not just talking about Gibson, who was a major star in 2000. To stay on a serious point for a moment, this movie is an unintentional allegory in how men and women’s careers are treated differently in Hollywood. The movie’s female lead is Helen Hunt, whose career has all but vanished since 2000, and not because of any scandal. Instead, it’s seemingly just the natural path for a woman in Hollywood. This is in contrast to Gibson, whose luck has shown signs of turning around in recent years, with film roles and awards recognition for Hacksaw Ridge. Meanwhile, there are several other formerly prominent actresses in the movie whose careers seem to have taken a downturn, something that #MeToo has taught me to view with skepticism: In addition to Hollywood’s notorious ageism and general mercilessness, we’ve learned there are countless actresses whose careers have been actively sabotaged by powerful men. So when I think of someone like Lauren Holly, who was everywhere in the ’90s, or Ashley Johnson, former child star, I wonder if I just haven’t been watching the right things, they decided to act less for their own reasons, or, well, something else.
Do jobs like Mel Gibson’s in this movie still exist? Did they ever? Gibson, playing a mid-level ad exec, seems to have three assistants in this movie. Two of them, Delta Burke and Valerie Perrine, work just for him (doing what, I’m not sure), but then Sarah Paulson also seems to have to do grunt work for him too, which she is very resentful about. And Judy Greer’s whole job is also something assistant-y having to do with handing out papers and sometimes serving Gibson. Why does this one man, who is not even the creative director, have so many employees dedicated to assisting him? So much excess! I imagine companies like the ad agency where the movie takes place look a lot different post-2008 recession and post-monoculture.
There is quite a lot of corny music. What Women Want has this awful, Rat Pack–heavy soundtrack that for some reason people in the year 2000 thought was synonymous with urban, hip New York City.* The few contemporary sound cues provide a welcome break. B*witched! Meredith Brooks! Baby Christina Aguilera!
It’s not really fair to call this a Nancy Meyers joint. Yes, Nancy Meyers directed What Women Want, her second feature after (the divine) Lindsay Lohan remake of The Parent Trap. But the movie is Meyers lite. It lacks some of the qualities that would come to define her most wild rich-people opuses like Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated—extravagant interiors, winning heroines—which I chalk up to it being the only one of the movies she directed that she didn’t also write. (I think Baby Boom and Father of the Bride, both of which she wrote but didn’t direct, are more authentically Meyers, for what it’s worth.) Watching Mel Gibson read women’s minds is minorly diverting, but in the end, the mind I really wish I was reading is Meyers’.
Correction, Feb. 11, 2019: This post originally misidentified the group of entertainers in the 1960s that included Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. It was the Rat Pack, not the Brat Pack.