All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

WHAT WOMEN WANT

The Oprahfication of society continues apace: first Al Gore and George W. Bush, and now Mel Gibson. In Nancy Meyers’ slickly-made but sadly bathetic new fantasy comedy-drama, the erstwhile macho man portrays a male chauvinist pig who magically overhears women’s thoughts and, in learning to deal with the gift, gets in touch with his feminine side to become a sensitive, caring soul. The touchy-feely result should certainly appeal to the large audiences, predominantly female, who have made Winfrey’s show a national institution. Others may be neither touched nor amused.

As one-joke premises go, this isn’t a bad one, but it’s been rather clumsily elaborated by scripters Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa and slackly directed by Meyers. “What Women Want” ultimately comes across as an overproduced big-screen variant of the sort of cutesy stuff one might expect in a movie made for the Lifetime Network–which, after all, proudly advertises itself as the channel of choice for those of the female gender.

Gibson plays Nick Marshall, a Chicago ad exec who thinks himself hot stuff, both professionally and sexually. He gets royally ticked off when his nattering boss Alan Alda hires Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt) as the firm’s new creative director rather than promoting him into the spot, and he plots to sabotage the new gal, aided in his quest by a weird electrical accident that gives him the ability to listen in on the inner workings of women’s minds. The gift changes, him, though; before long he’s not only falling for Darcy, but getting increasingly involved in the life of his estranged adolescent daughter Alex (Ashley Johnson) and truly chummy with other females in his office, including one geekish kid who’s actually suicidal. He also finds himself concerned about wronging a coffee-shop clerk (Marisa Tomei) whom he’s long been asking for dates but now is loath to hurt. To use contemporary terminology, he’s a Martian transformed by the ability to see things from a Venusian perspective; suddenly uninterested in television sports shows or commercials featuring scantily-clad models, he gravitates to true-confession interviews about weight problems and Martha Stewart homemaking episodes instead.

There might have been the germ of a sharp, observant satire in all this, but the makers have chosen to treat the tale in lowest-common-denominator sitcom fashion. The picture is very like every current office-based half-hour on the tube, with an ancillary dash of updated “Father Knows Best” family warmth added to the mix along with the “magical” element. (The depictions of the episodes in which electrical energy first endows Nick with his new power and then removes it, moreover, are distinctly off-putting, lacking any lightness of touch and seeming almost creepy in their literalism. A couple of easy shots at supposed gay mannerisms are a trifle distasteful, too.)

Through it all, though, Gibson proves game for almost anything. On screen virtually every minute, he gives a performance that might most charitably be described as strenuous, running at an almost constant high-octane level and willingly allowing himself to be made to look ridiculous. To his credit, the star throws himself into each and every demand the script makes of him, from glib bonhomie and smarmy self-confidence to manic agitation and looks of soulful, teary-eyed remorse; he even endures an extremely embarrassing scene requiring him to model pantyhose, polish his nails and test what it feels like to remove leg hair. (He’s much more successful in an Astaire-like dance sequence involving a hat and a coatstand.) But for the most part he plays at too high a pitch; the rare occasions when he relaxes a little come as a distinct relief (though when the “It’s A Wonderful Life” fantasy elements intrude, even reticence can’t salvage them). As his inevitable romantic interest, Hunt is appealing but resolutely lightweight. Marisa Tomei has a few good moments as the counter attendant who catches Mel’s eye (including one in the sack with him), but most of the remaining supporting players–Alda, Mark Feuerstein as Mel’s best buddy, Lauren Holly as an office assistant, and Delta Burke and Valerie Perrine as secretaries–are pretty much wasted. Ashley Johnson gets a substantial amount of screen time as the hero’s none-too-happy daughter, but it’s a thankless role.

It’s a sure bet that what a lot of women will want this holiday will be to see Gibson’s conversion to the softer side, some of them more than once. Dates and mates sitting beside them would be well advised to nod approvingly and smile, even if grimly, should the ladies laugh and sniffle at predictable points throughout the picture; not all women will be taken in by the malarkey, of course, but if your companion seems to be, you’d best resist the urge to point out the movie’s tearjerking calculation and rather brazen pandering to its target audience. To do otherwise might cast a pall over end-of-year celebrations, something to be avoided for the sake of seasonal harmony. If, on the other hand, you’re a guy who finds himself chuckling and sniffling at the stuff on display here as well, just consider yourself–like George, Al and Mel–well on the way to Oprahfication too, and learn to live with it.

MARISA TOMEI ON “WHAT WOMEN WANT”

Marisa Tomei, who won an Oscar for her memorable role as Joe Pesci’s streetwise girlfriend in 1992’s “My Cousin Vinny,” has since appeared in a long list of both comic and dramatic features, but one might have expected that even she might have been a bit nervous about doing an extended scene in the sack with Mel Gibson, as she does in Paramount Picture’s holiday offering “What Women Want.” (She plays a coffee-shop clerk whom Gibson’s character has long romanced, and who finally agrees to go out with him, only to prove more aggressive than he is.) But in a recent Dallas interview, the soft-spoken star–very unlike her brash “Vinny” character–said no.

“I didn’t really think about that part until later,” she said, smiling. “It was more like, ‘I really like the role, and I think this is funny.’ I knew he was in it, which made it exciting. But I didn’t think specifically about the day I would be in bed with him. I didn’t think ahead that far. So it was a bonus when I got to that day.”

Tomei has a relatively brief role in “What Women Want”–a few dialogue sequences with Gibson (who plays a chauvinist suddenly able to hear women’s thoughts) and two larger scenes further on, the first in the bedroom and a second when she tracks him down to find out why he didn’t call her afterward–but buzz has already begun that she might be in the running for a second Oscar nomination. The actress credits producer-director Nancy Meyers for much of the success of the picture as a whole (preview audiences have embraced it), and of her own performance.

“Nancy really wrote a lot of it,” Tomei noted. “You could really say ‘written, directed, produced by Nancy Meyers.’ I think the movie’s really smart, much of which is Nancy. It has her all over it.” And, she added, her own contribution depended a great deal on Meyers’ instruction and later editing.

“That was definitely the director,” Tomei said of her scenes. “I didn’t know whether the pitch was going to be right at all. I was worried. I just tried to be real. Certainly that first scene in the bedroom is a really key moment in her [Lola, her character’s] life, so there I felt a little more comfortable with it being big and the pitch being strong. It was just one of those mind-blowing experiences. But in the last scene,” she continued, “I wasn’t sure at all. And Nancy got like thirty takes per angle, not even per scene…. So we did it a lot, to the point where you didn’t even know. So my pitch was probably all over the place, and I asked her later, ‘Was it always the last few that you used?’ And she said, ‘No, it was all over–beginning, middle, and end.’ She would…pick from all over [in editing].”

“The director is always involved in the pitch of the scene,” Tomei went on to observe, “because it’s their vision. They know what the climax of the movie is going to be, they have a sense of where they want to go, what they want to emphasize, what they want to throw away. I find that in choosing a pitch for a scene, the director has to have a clear vision for it in order for you to play it.”

As for doing comedic or dramatic parts, Tomei went back to her cardinal acting rule. “I think it’s just good to keep it real, whatever it is,” she said. “Just go for reality whatever genre it is, and that’s what will work. If the material or the circumstance [in a comedy] is funny, the scene will be funny. And when it’s not funny, it’s not real.” Thanks to Tomei, Gibson, and a large supporting cast (including Helen Hunt and Alan Alda), many viewers are sure to find “What Women Want” both very real and very funny.