Big-Screen Sitcom

What do women want? Mel Gibson.

At least that's the answer you'd give after watching this competently crafted, box-office-busting, major-star vehicle which has half-hearted aspirations to be something more than that it actually is.

The question may have stumped Freud, but he was trying to explore the subject at some depth. Director Nancy Meyers (The Parent Trap) and screenwriters Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa wind up just skimming the surface. Mel shines as a handsome, successful guy who transforms himself from an unfeeling jerk into a sensitive person by listening to women's concerns.

The movie juggles two overlapping story lines. The first revolves around a clever gimmick that would make a passable “Saturday Night Live” skit. Gibson's character is able to hear what all the women around him are thinking but don't dare say. This generates a half-dozen big laughs. The second has an old-fashioned plot line that's a partial rip-off of the 1961 Rock Hudson-Doris Day classic Lover Come Back. But the dramatic choices made by Meyers and her screenwriters in reworking the material tell us more about the temper of our times than they probably intend.

Nick Marshall (Gibson) is a hot-shot Chicago advertising executive who specializes in products consumed by males — cars and beer, for example. “He's the total bachelor and the least politically correct man in the company,” a co-worker cracks.

In short, he's an unreconstructed male chauvinist, proud of his ways and ripe for comeuppance. The instrument of payback is Darcy McGuire (Helen Hunt), a rival ad exec who snags the promotion to which he believes he's entitled.

Raised by a single-mom Vegas showgirl, Nick models himself on Frank Sinatra and, like the leader of the Rat Pack, he equates manhood with late-night partying, multiple seductions, a sharp wardrobe and cool quips. The filmmakers hammer home this connection by letting Nick mug shamelessly while dancing to some of the late crooner's greatest hits.

They also want us to think that their comedy has a message about female empowerment in addition to its gags and romantic complications, and they dramatize the issue by making women's increased spending power in the marketplace a key plot point.

Females aged 16 to 24 are the fastest-growing consumer group in the country, shelling out $40 billion a year. These trends have changed the nature of the advertising business, and Darcy is brought into Nick's agency above him because she's a proven expert in appealing to that demographic.

Characterized as “a real man-eater,” she locks horns with Nick when she insists that her staff take home a box of female products to learn how women think and come up with ways to sell them. In what's intended to be a bravura comedy scene, Nick paints his toenails, removes body hair and puts on women's underwear.

While clutching a hair dryer, he falls into a full bathtub and, as a result of a freak electrical accident, discovers he can literally read women's minds. This ability scares him, and he consults a pot-smoking therapist (Bette Midler) who observes: “If you know what women want, you can rule.”

The filmmakers, like most in present-day Hollywood, assume that the use of locker-room humor is a sign of female empowerment: Through his special gift, Nick learns that women are just as raunchy as men in their secret thoughts.

Somehow this new awareness also brings out his softer, feminine side, which makes him even more irresistible to women. He uses these newfound talents for his own self-aggrandizement, enhancing his seduction skills in his private life and stealing Darcy's ideas at the agency.

But his special powers do have some positive effects. He realizes that his female associates don't like to be called “babe” and that his secretary gets tired of fetching coffee and running his personal errands.

Nick's family life is a mess. His ex-wife (Lauren Holly) is about to remarry, and his teen-age daughter (Ashley Johnson) rarely sees him, calling him “Uncle Dad.” She resents his sporadic attempts to buy her affections. Nick now is able to understand her conflicted feelings and reaches out to her during some difficult moments on prom night.

To land a big account, Nick conspires to work closely with Darcy. Sparks fly, and they fall in love. This throws a monkey wrench into his Machiavellian manipulations, and he's forced to change.

This bawdy battle of the sexes is set in a culture of divorce in which adolescent and young-adult courtship rituals extend well into middle age. Nick's attitudes and behavior aren't much different than his daughter's except as regards sex. Promiscuity seems to have no moral consequences; its only negative is that it sometimes makes others feel bad.

In this all-too-familiar milieu, the highest virtue is being in touch with your own feelings while respecting those of others — and the ultimate reward for virtuous conduct is personal empowerment.

Catholics should recognize this point of view as an aspect of what John Paul II labels “consumerism,” whose primary values are immediate gratification and the possession of material goods. By uncritically accepting these worldly aspirations as a contemporary common denominator, What Women Want ends up more an artifact of our me-first civilization of consumption than a witty commentary upon it.

Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.