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In the 1920s Sigmund Freud wrote a hugely influential essay called
“What Women Want.” To avoid confusion, I should make clear at the start
that the new romantic comedy with Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt has nothing
to do with Sigmund Freud. If anything, its spiritual ancestors are Cary
Grant and Katherine Hepburn, or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (but no
dancing), or Rock Hudson and Doris Day. The film is the dream world of
Nancy Meyers, writer and director of the new “What Women Want.” I saw
the film this week at a packed promotional screening in Washington and
the women were screaming with laughter. The men were dead silent.

The essential comic device of the film is that Gibson can read
women’s minds. He delivers a conventional line of mildly humorous
dialogue, at which the audience hears a comment in a female voice,
saying for example, “That’s OK, sweet buns,” which is enough to at least
disconcert a macho male like Gibson. But Gibson’s character,
miraculously through a preposterous accident, suddenly has developed the
gift of hearing what women are thinking. Which is the whole film right
there.

Gibson is an executive at an advertising company that has been losing
money because it has been losing its female clientele. Now Mel Gibson
is not the first actor you’d think of to reinvigorate an advertising
agency whose products lack the magic feminine touch. Shortly they hire
Helen Hunt. She is a nice woman, and companionable, but there she is in
the job that had been promised Gibson.

Much of the movie (obviously intended for female audiences) is filled
with references to feminine products from makeup to panty hose to uplift
bras, for none of which, obviously, Gibson has any brainstorms about
marketing. But, ah-hah! You’re forgetting that Gibson can hear what
are women thinking! And he not only hears what women customers are
thinking, he hears what women executives are thinking, including Helen
Hunt, whose ideas he robs shamelessly (and without her ever noticing,
which is really remarkable).

At each gaffe Gibson makes about everything, from panty hose to
mascara, the audience dissolves into a hurricane of female laughter.
And Gibson’s attempt to actually don pantyhose is either the comic high
point of the picture — or the comic low point — depending, I suppose,
on the gender of the viewer.

But Miss Hunt has a soft heart. And when Gibson reveals his secret
gift to her, she takes it — but I actually don’t know how she takes it,
for I believe the final reel of the film was shot several times. In any
case she forgives him for having deceived her, for getting her fired and
for a myriad other deceptions. And need I add? They end up (last reel)
in each other’s arms.

Whether Gibson got tired of aping women, I don’t know, but for his
next film he will team up again with the screenwriter of “Braveheart” to
tell the story of the first major engagement of American and Vietcong
troops in the Vietnam War. Some 400 American soldiers were parachuted
into the la Drang Valley and found themselves surround by 2,000 enemy
troops.

As for “What Women Want,” Mel Gibson has said it was interesting to
take the woman’s point of view. We’ll see how long this lasts.

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