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The Sixth Sense

Most people love to hear about comebacks; me, I’ll take a great comeuppance any day. That’s why the act of sitting through What Women Want becomes briefly bearable the moment Mel Gibson utters the words, “I’m gay.” Now before anyone starts inviting him to Human Rights Campaign dinners or splashing his blue eyes across The Advocate or grooming him for the Tom Hanks/William Hurt Oscar pantheon, I should add that his character is, for reasons too complicated to explain just now, lying through his teeth. And even if the character weren’t lying, we could be certain that Mel Gibson was. All those Lethal Weapon movies he’s made! All those children he’s sired! All those homophobic slurs he’s uttered! They don’t make ’em any more breeder-ish than that.


And so we arrive at this interesting cultural moment: Mel Gibson finds it professionally expedient to assume (very briefly) a gay identity and to star in a movie predicated on his comic emasculation. Not his character’s emasculation — his own. Substitute most any other star, and What Women Want ceases to make even a modicum of sense, for it demands at its center the noisiest of heterosexual icons (and Russell Crowe was, presumably, not available).


What Women Want is the story of Nick Marshall (Gibson), a crass Lothario who wakes up one morning to discover he can hear women’s deepest, most private thoughts. At first, these internally generated broadcasts are almost too much for him to bear: a stroll past a perfume counter or a walk through a park quickly becomes a cacophony of inner voices, all clamoring for his attention. His teenage daughter turns out, on telepathic inspection, to have zero respect for him, and the female colleagues who laugh at his dumb jokes secretly hate his guts.


But our reprobate Nick soon recognizes the potential of his new power. By reading the mind of his new boss (a miscast Helen Hunt) he can steal her ideas and supplant her in the office hierarchy. And by sounding out the vulnerabilities of a sexy coffeehouse counter girl (Marisa Tomei), he can guide her all the more skillfully into bed. Lest you think that Nick’s rampant male careerism will go unchecked, keep in mind that director Nancy Meyers has a credit list that includes The Parent Trap and the screenplays for the Father of the Bride movies. With that foreknowledge, you can safely expect a tepid Hollywood domesticity to reassert itself, and you can count the minutes (too many, unfortunately) before Nick hearkens to the wisdom of the female mind and becomes a better, kinder, happier man.


He would have to. What Women Want subscribes to the Deborah Tannen notion that a woman’s way of thinking is intrinsically superior to a man’s. Men, we are repeatedly reminded, want to score; women want to care. There’s no suggestion that the females in this picture could benefit in any way from a male viewpoint, and thus it comes as something of a shock to realize that What Women Want is so very much the leading man’s picture. From first to last, Gibson gets all the meat and all the shtick (and, to his credit, makes the most of them) while a large gallery of supporting pixies (Delta Burke, Valerie Perrine, Bette Midler, the criminally underused Ana Gasteyer) sit frozen in place, like smiling waxworks, while we overhear their thoughts.


The only actress who gets a chance to cut loose is Marisa Tomei, who shares honors with Gibson in the film’s most amusing scene. Nick has finally landed his coffeehouse coochie, and the two of them are thrashing around in bed, but the soundtrack of her internal commentary — her ongoing critique of his technique, his penis size — is so punishing he has to retreat to the bathroom for safety. Unfortunately, this is also the point where the movie’s binary logic begins to collapse on itself, because Nick immediately leaps back into bed and produces such a dazzling sexual performance that, six days later, his coochie is still wandering in a daze. I was a little dazed myself. Did Nick succeed because he fully embraced his female side? Or because, for the moment at least, he suppressed it? Is he a woman’s best friend or her dream lover? How, exactly, does this movie want men to behave?


All we can be sure of is that it wants men to be cute. Even with Helen Hunt pushed up and out more fiercely than any actress since Janet Leigh, Mel Gibson is indisputably the film’s sexual center. He’s the one whose naked and still-impressive torso gets at least fifteen minutes of uninterrupted screen time. (Marisa Tomei never seems to leave her nightie.) He’s the one who induces spasms of desire in every woman he passes. And, strangely, he’s the one whose face has been marked most deeply by time’s claws. I used to wonder why male movie stars — actors like Richard Gere and Harrison Ford — waited so long to dive into the froth of romantic comedy. Is it because their desire to attract women viewers rises in inverse proportion to their sense of their own desirability? That could explain the baffling practice by which romantic heroines are required to remain young and dewy while romantic heroes are permitted to grow ever older and moldier. It could also explain why movie-goers are increasingly treated to such creepy spectacles as Woody Allen seducing Julia Roberts and Jack Nicholson making goo-goo eyes at Helen Hunt. Unlike some of his saggier colleagues, Mel Gibson can still look at his body in the mirror and like what he sees. But the antic comic energy he brings to a project like What Women Wants carries with it an undercurrent of panic. Like the bantam rooster he voiced in Chicken Run, he’s flapping his wings for all they’re worth . . . and time’s winged chariot is flapping even faster.

Louis Bayard and, Inc.