Apart from when he got cocky as Rocky the rooster in Chicken Run, it's been a while since Mel Gibson tried his hand at comedy. In fact, during the past two decades, only Maverick, Air America and Bird On A Wire have leaned towards laughs as much as action or drama. But now that the Lethal Weapon franchise (and its stars) are getting a bit short of breath, it could be time for Mel to graze in fresh pastures.
And so to What Women Want, a romantic comedy that squeezes every last drop of charm out of the old boy as he schmoozes his way from the first frame to the final reel. While the central idea is original enough - misogynist suddenly discovers he can hear women's thoughts - there's nothing particularly new about the film's constituent parts.
A touch of magic realism and a dash of slapstick enliven the mix, but basically What Women Want is formed from the same mould as those old-fashioned screwball comedies that saw Cary Grant cross-dressing or Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn trading smart, stinging lines. However, as a sparring duo, Gibson and Helen Hunt aren't in their class, particularly as the latter, fine actress though she is, can't cut it as love interest. Nor is the male fear of women in the workplace properly developed as a theme, leaving this battle of the sexes languishing on a too shallow plane.
There are plenty of laughs along the way, however, most of them at Gibson's expense. Nick is painted as such a self-satisfied bastard at the start of the movie that it really requires Mel's heavyweight charisma to pull off the concept. He's deliberately playing with and against his image, too sexist and manipulative to be an out-and-out hero in the early stages but willing to be a figure of fun when caught on screen trying out lipstick and tights. But at times such freedom encourages him to wander down a path of self-indulgence: witness a terrible mimed Sinatra song `n' dance routine and a badly handled subplot featuring Marisa Tomei that concludes clumsily by trying to subvert accusations about Gibson's alleged homophobia.
If the writers can be held guilty for sloppily plastering over a few cracks in the plot, then at least the same can't be said for most of the cast. Gibson holds it all together while, as Nick's neglected daughter Alex, Ashley Johnson turns in the best performance of the film.
Although the men in the audience won't really learn much of importance from the secret worlds inside the heads of the women on screen, What Women Want is at its best when having fun with its silly plot device. Yet, unfortunately, for the last 20 minutes or so, it really could be any old romantic comedy feeling its way towards a resolution.