The Swinger vs. the Fembots 

Reviews of the latest films.
Dec. 15 2000 3:00 AM

The Swinger vs. the Fembots 

Mel Gibson finds his feminine side in What Women Want. Chocolat is sickeningly sweet. 

What Women Want
Directed by Nancy Meyers
Paramount Pictures

Chocolat
Directed by Lasse Hallström
Miramax Films

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In What Women Want, Mel Gibson is Nick Marshall, a swinger—sorry for the out-of-date patois, but this guy lives in a groovy bachelor pad and sways to Sinatra on his high-end stereo—who magically acquires the ability to hear what women are thinking. First, he's confused and terrified: Women seem to loathe everything about him but his "sweet little ass." Then he learns to use his gift to get laid, conquer in bed, and surge ahead in his job by undermining his new, "ball-busting" female boss (Helen Hunt). Then, of course, he has an epiphany. He begins to perceive how truly vulnerable women are to cads like himself, which makes him a better man. He realizes that for too long he has kept them at arm's (or penis's) length.

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There's nothing inherently offensive about this plot: In some ways, it's the same romantic fantasy of a bad boy's transformation into a sensitive male that movies have been peddling since they learned to talk. The picture has some fun slapstick set pieces and an inventively manic turn by Gibson. The director, Nancy Meyers, has a TV-style pushiness—she seems most comfortable when her characters bond during musical montages. But holiday audiences succumbed to her heavy hand in the 1991 Father of the Bride remake, and this—a much better film—will probably be a big hit. That seems appropriate in an age in which we've been told (re our future president) that " 'W.' stands for women." WhatWomen Want is one of the most retro "feminist" movies ever made.

Appropriately enough, it's set in the highest tiers of the advertising world, where Nick is a beer-commercial, T&A kind of guy. But his firm needs to tap into the female market (think: "Come see the softer side of Sears") to stay competitive—just as studios have to tap into the female market at Christmas to stay competitive (think: What Women Want). Although it's not exactly news that you sell to people by getting inside their heads and exploiting their anxieties, it's a revelation to Nick. He was raised in a whorehouse, we're informed, so he can't get past objectifying women—even if some empathy would help him dominate them more effectively.

There's an old cartoon called "How To Pick Up Women" that shows the right and wrong technique: "Wrong" is a balding little guy with glasses purring to a woman on a barstool, "Hey, good-looking, where've you been all my life?"; "Right" is a tall, muscularly handsome guy purring to a woman on a barstool, "Hey, good-looking, where've you been all my life?" Face it: No matter what comes out of his mouth, Mel Gibson is the "Right" guy, and in What Women Want he's so confident a movie star that he overpowers the drama—nothing is really at stake. Gibson's character describes himself as "fit as a dancing bear," which doesn't do his marbled abs justice. He's in outrageously good shape—too good shape, since those muscles look freshly pumped. (The character is supposed to be a narcissist, but showing him lift weights would come too close to Gibson's own narcissism.)

It's really no contest between Gibson and the picture's women. Marisa Tomei is turned into a blithering idiot who dubs Nick a "sex god" and is then promptly abandoned. In the film's most excruciating scene, he spares her feelings (she's suicidal at the thought that he would throw her away after one night) by pretending to be gay. Helen Hunt starts out brilliantly. Her Darcy breezes into her first meeting armed with charts and homework assignments, and you don't need to be a mind reader to see the vulnerability in her tartness and corporate-speak and fast-talking fluency. But she turns to mush so quickly.

The Nike commercial that Darcy and Nick hatch is presented as some kind of triumph of feminism (it's all about escaping the judgment of society and embracing the road), and the company representatives who arrive to screen it (all women, some minority) act as if they're not on a corporate mission to sell sneakers but rather to empower the female sex. Do the filmmakers really think the audience is dumb enough to buy a Nike commercial as a blow for feminine independence? They might, because they've made a "feminist" movie that's really about how weak women are—how when you get into their heads they're all blubbering basket cases. (The higher up the corporate ladder they go, the more of a blubbering basket case they become.) WhatWomen Want makes the case against misogyny by saying: What fun is being a misogynist when women aren't innately powerful? Pity the poor creatures.

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The females rule in Chocolat, which begins with a woman (Juliette Binoche) and her daughter blowing like Gallic Mary Poppinses into a French provincial town where they're intent on practicing the pagan art of chocolate making. Our heroine sets about liberating the townspeople from repression with her truffles and bonbons and hot cocoa, all mixed with chili pepper—a happy drug, an aphrodisiac, a panacea of pleasure, a call to libertarianism and tolerance. Families are reunited; sex drives in long-married couples are restored; a sour grandma (Judi Dench) is reconciled to life; a battered woman (Lena Olin) is liberated from her abusive husband and moves into the chocolate shop and back into the society of humans.

Who could object to this gorgeous and sophisticated savior? Well, this is a Catholic town steeped in tradition, and the grinchy mayor (Alfred Molina) doesn't approve of "self-gratification," especially during Lent and especially delivered by an unwed mother who refuses to go to church. Damn that chocolate strumpet!

For the first half of Chocolat, the liberal, life-affirming whimsy made my teeth ache, but the director, Lasse Hallström (last year's Cider House Rules), knows how to build a house, even a house made of something brown and runny that isn't chocolate. He does solid work. Binoche wears her magician's cape lightly, and she and Olin (both veterans of The Unbearable Lightnessof Being, 1988) have a teasing intimacy. Even Johnny Depp, who shows up as a hippie river-rat with a beard, guitar, and Irish accent, doesn't ram the beatnik poetry thing down our throats. But the movie is barely sufferable. It encourages us to pat ourselves on the back for our enlightened tolerance, but anyone who could find something wrong with this great cook, devoted mother, and protector of abused women probably isn't allowed to go to the cinema in the first place.

Pictures like Chocolat and Quills bring out the William Bennett in me. No, that's not true: The lies of the left strike me as a lot less destructive than the lies of the right. But I expect more of my own tribe—an ability to cope with ambiguity, to grasp that movies are a dramatic medium and that both sides of a political or religious struggle should be fairly represented. Thank you, Miramax, for making the brave, urgent case for self-gratification.  

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