There's an inspired scene about 15 minutes into "What Women Want," the year's most refreshing romantic comedy, when super-successful Chicago ad executive Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson) tries out his newfound clairvoyance on two assistants. Brunette Eve (Delta Burke) and blond Margo (Valerie Perrine), a matched plump pair, are doting on their patronizing boss when he attempts to read their minds. He listens for their thoughts and detects pure silence. Nothing's going on inside those happy heads.
That's one of just a handful of jokes made at the expense of the female characters in the second directorial outing by Nancy Meyers, who made her Hollywood debut as a co-writer of "Private Benjamin" and moved into directing with the 1998 remake of "The Parent Trap." The bulk of the film, bolstered by terrific, loose-limbed performances and a funny, telling script, is devoted to the ineffectiveness of the movie's males when it comes to understanding women's wants, needs and desires.
Nick, a "man's man," a veteran bachelor who long ago exited his marriage, is chief among the offenders of political correctness. He casually addresses his housekeeper as "babe," regularly adds notches to his bedpost, ignores and/or patronizes a variety of female colleagues and typically uses sex, in particular the appeal of scantily clad models, as central elements in his ad campaigns. Other guys are openly admiring of his knack for picking up hard-to-get women.
His self-centered approach to life also extends to his concern -- or lack thereof -- for his daughter (Ashley Johnson). She's 15, but he thinks she can't be older than 13. She's dating, and he's deathly afraid of what might happen when she encounters a guy like dear old dad.
A shocking -- literally -- bathroom mishap gives Nick the opportunity to really figure out what women want, when he's suddenly able to hear the thoughts of every female in sight. It's a gift he can't refuse and one that draws comical consequences.
Nick's rebirth as a sensitive guy begins rather cynically, as a matter of professional expediency: He wants to get with the program mandated by Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt, in her third of four feature-film appearances this year), the fast-rising advertising pro brought in to fill the creative-director position. Darcy, attractive, smart, in charge and thus relegated to the status of "bitch on wheels" by her new nemesis and his pal Morgan (Mark Feuerstein), on her first day asks colleagues to examine a box of women's products and come up with pitches.
Thus we're subjected to the self-consciously zany spectacle of Nick trying out lipstick, applying eyeliner, using hot wax to remove hair from his legs, struggling into pantyhose and, the final touch, attempting to strap on a Wonder bra. His daughter and her scruffy 18-year-old boyfriend catch him in the act. The sequence, extended for maximum effect, of course, is predictable and indulgent: See the action-movie stud make like a transvestite. Braveheart goes drag.
But Gibson deserves credit for being so game for the task. His zesty approach to the dress-up silliness, too, spills over into every other aspect of his performance. One sequence has the star cranking up the Frank Sinatra tunes and using a derby and a coat rack to spin around the room, dancing like Fred Astaire. Who knew Mad Max was so light on his feet?
After such an engaging start, "What Women Want" gets creaky when Nick begins to make amends to all the women in his life. Nonetheless, for the majority of the film, Gibson acts as if he's having the time of his (onscreen) life. His enthusiasm is contagious.