Save the Cat! Goes to the movies (20) Out Of The Bottle: What Women Want (2000)


In creating a hero, it’s best to start with one who has the longest journey. The protag with the furthest to go to change his way offers the biggest bang for the peso on the premise. So when it comes to choosing someone to get the power to be able to hear What Women Want, who better than Mel Gibson as Nick Marshall, the ultimate ladies’ man?

Director Nancy Meyers’ first effort after her split with long-time partner Charles Shyer was a solid choice  – for when done well these stories are favorites. And for a movie using “magic,” it is one of the most thoughtful in the “Curse Bottle” category – those OOTB movies about magic the hero did not ask for, or is cursed by – but needs in order to grow. With a romantic co-starring role for Helen Hunt, and cameos by Valerie Perrine, Delta Burke, and Bette Midler, the film is a prime example of smart moviemaking. It works because it answers the question filmmakers assaying the OOTB genre must confront; What would happen if this amazing thing occurred in real life?

OOTB films might seem silly on the surface, but a good one is “about something” – and the substance of What Women Want is in its theme, which explores the female mind through the one guy who can benefit from the magic more than any other. What starts as an empowerment becomes a powerful example of “be careful what you wish for.” It might just lead to change.

OOTB Type: Curse Bottle

OOTB Cousins: Witchboard, The Craft, Liar Liar, The Devil’s Advocate, Ella Enchanted, Bedazzled, Practical Magic, The Animal, Shallow Hal, The Ant Bully


Screenplay by Josh Goldsmith & Cathy Yuspa

Story by Josh Goldsmith & Cathy Yuspa and Diane Drake

Opening Image: “You know the expression “a man’s man?” asks a female voice. A lot of women are talking about Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson): his ex-wife, his daughter, and the female employees at the ad agency where he works. All agree: He’s a rogue. We meet Mel waking in bed, a lipstick kiss on his cheek from yet another date. Mel smiles with satisfaction, not realizing Stasis = Death.Set-Up: Mel is a successful ad exec who lives in a luxury NYC apartment. We set up a day in Mel’s life that includes chatting with his maid; his female doorman; flirting with Lola (Marisa Tomei), the girl at his building coffee shop; and being top dog at work – even if it means ignoring an office worker, Erin (Judy Greer). Mel is up for a promotion and seems sure to get it.

Theme Stated: At Minute ll, Mel’s boss (Alan Alda) tells Mel: “lf we don’t evolve and think beyond our natural ability, we’re gonna go down.” Alan’s talking about the agency’s need to change with the times, but we know he’s talking about Mel- and the theme!

Catalyst: Alan gives Mel the bad news; Mel not only lost the promotion, he lost to a woman.

Debate: Will Mel accept this affront or fight it? Mel goes to his ex-wife’s wedding and learns he’s getting his daughter, Alex (Ashley Johnson), for two weeks – a complication. Women are suddenly a problem for the man’s man. The new boss arrives and Mel meets Darcy McGuire (Helen Hunt). Mel’s first look at her in the conference room is an admiring view of her legs. This is still Mel’s mindset, but we sense it’s about to be challenged. New boss Helen’s mantra is female-driven advertising. To get her team up to speed, she gives everyone in the meeting a pink box filled with women’s products. Mel receives the totem not knowing it contains part of the “magic” he will need to transform.

Break into Two: We’ve come a long way since Freaky Friday. We know why we’re seeing this movie: the magic of Mel hearing women’s thoughts. But how will he acquire this power? We delay the inevitable as Mel gets drunk and puts on nail polish and eye liner to feel in synch with the woman consumer. Director Meyers is doing a modified “Pope in the Pool” here, obscuring what we know must happen with fun. This includes Mells daughter and her boyfriend surprising Mel while he’s wearing pantyhose. Mel shoos them away, then gets his stockings in a twist and falls into the bathtub filled with women’s products. As a magic inducing final touch, a plugged-in hair dryer plops in, too. Mel is shocked and falls unconscious. When he wakes, we reprise Mel’s “day in the life” – a common trick to show change has occurred. And it has. Mel can hear what females are thinking – even female poodles. (Double Mumbo Jumbo alert!) Welcome to Act Two, Mel.

Fun and Games: We put the B story on hold for a while to revel in the “promise of the premise.” It’s a fun movie idea, and part of that fun is seeing Mel deal with the magic in a “realistic” way. In director Meyers’ hands, it’s textbook. Step l: Denial. Mel can’t believe it, but everywhere he goes, he hears women’s secret thoughts. Step 2: Horror. At work, he not only hears what his female co-workers think, but what they think about him! Step 3: Sharing. The Confidant (Mark Feuerstein), a male co-worker of Mel’s, doesn’t believe him. Step 4: Testing. Mel overhears cries for help, too – and the one that will become most important comes from office worker Erin. Just in time for Step 5: Rejection. Mel goes home and tries to get rid of the powers by re-enacting the magic. Unable to do so, Mel visits his ex-therapist, Bette Midler. Bette tells Mel what we’ve known all along: He can use his powers! “lf you know what women want, the world can be yours,” she says. Step 6: Work it! Mel runs amuck using fem-telepathy to get a date with Marisa, outthink his boss Helen, and get in good with his daughter’s female friends. Having the power is now amazing – and profitable – and Mel exploits it to the max.

Midpoint: Yet Mel is still not happy. As a metaphor for growth, he’s failed to get the lesson – and by midpoint he knows it. A “time clock” is now in place: Mel has two weeks to learn “what women want”, to win the Nike Woman account and best Helen. But after sex with Marisa – when he wows her with his insight into her thoughts – Mel starts to sense the “false victory.”

B Story: Mel’s real catalyst for “evolving” is Helen. In short, Mel’s in love. It is through Helen that he will learn and grow.

Bad Guys Close In: Mel wins the Nike account, dazzles his daughter when they shop for a prom dress, and kisses Helen – but his powers make this a cheat. We are “closing in” on the fact that Mel is hopelessly self-centered and still resists change.

All Is Lost: Helen is fired and Mel gets her job – and he sees how wrong he’s been. Ironically, by getting everything he wanted, he is “worse off than when this movie started.” The “whiff of death”, includes overhearing Erin, who is considering suicide.

Dark Night of the Soul: Mel runs through rain to save Erin from killing herself. On the way, a lightning strike reverses the magic and takes his powers away. Has Mel learned his lesson?

Break into Three: Mel now tries to negotiate the world of women without hearing their thoughts. A and B stories cross as Mel tells Alan that Helen should be boss. And when he gets a call from his daughter, who’s being pressured for sex by her boyfriend at the prom, he rushes there and shows love – just by listening.

Finale: Mel has yet to win Helen. In a showdown, he seeks her out to tell her he got her job back – and confesses he stole her ideas. Helen fires Mel, but still loves him. Mel calls Helen “my hero”, for helping him evolve (an echo of`Pretty Woman‘s ending).

Final Image: Helen and Mel kiss and Mel can now begin anew. No longer “a man’s man,” Mel has become… Synthesis Man! He has transformed his world by changing his attitude about it.


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