A chick flick isn’t just a movie that women flock to or adore. It’s a guilty pleasure – one that taps into squishy fantasies of ”having it all,” that packages princessy desire as syrupy wish fulfillment. In the new consumer culture, however, men and women alike have been turned into full-throttle fantasy shopper-seekers (we’re not so much from different planets as from different boutique malls), and so it was only a matter of time before guys got their very own version of chick flicks. What, exactly, should we call pictures like ”What Women Want” and ”The Family Man”? How about dude movies? Joe shows? Gick flicks?
The fizzy screwball comedy ”What Women Want” is about as deep as an episode of ”Bewitched,” yet, as directed by Nancy Meyers, it’s got a high-sporting verbal zing. Mel Gibson plays Nick Marshall, a charming, self-centered lady-killer who suffers a freak accident and is suddenly cursed – or is it blessed? – with the ability to hear women’s thoughts. He saunters down the street, or through the winding offices of the Chicago ad agency where he’s the resident hotshot, and each time he passes a member of the opposite sex, he registers her inner voice – her hidden desires and resentments, her diet woes, and everything else he’d never before had a clue about. When the job Nick has been coveting goes to Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt), who has been chosen to lead his agency into the sizzling new era of female consumer power, he brainstorms with her and steals her ideas, and he’s just clever enough about it to convince her that he’s being a sexy gentleman as well.
A chick flick tells women that they can be postfeminist adventurers and still land a man in an old-fashioned, fairy-tale way. A gick flick does just the opposite: It reassures men that they can live in the postfeminist world, and even be domesticated, without giving up their mythical ”freedom” – their cherished ability to be randy charmers, to be men. Gibson, in a disarmingly nimble, fast-break performance, makes Nick’s new hyper-empathy look like the essence of virile panache. He and Hunt achieve a genuine flirtatious chemistry, though I suspect a lot of women are going to look at Hunt’s character and think that she’s too nice and pliable. They had better get used to it. The new gick flicks, built to feed the vanity of men, are bound to be as reductive as all those Nora Ephron comedies that paved the way for them.
In the schlock weeper ”The Family Man,” Jack Campbell (Nicolas Cage), a hedonistic Wall Street bachelor, wakes up one day to discover that he’s been plunged into the scruffy domestic life he thought he’d avoided. In this mystical parallel universe, he’s married to Kate (Téa Leoni), the woman he left behind at an airport 13 years before, and he’s now a badly dressed New Jersey tire salesman with two children, a cozy house full of ugly faded wallpaper, bills up the ying-yang, and the sort of chummy, vulgar working-class neighbors whose idea of a wild time is bowling night.
”The Family Man” is ”It’s a Wonderful Life” remade as a shark-out-of-water comedy – it’s family-values porn for commitmentphobes. Cage, a canny actor even in the pulpiest of circumstances, does dryly funny double takes as Jack confronts the workaday horror of his new situation. But Cage’s moon-dog mug is required to go misty once too often, and the outsize ticky-tackiness of Jack’s new life has been stitched together out of the broadest possible series of middle-American cliches.
The glorified-sitcom texture only underscores the whopper at the heart of the film’s premise: How can Jack begin to know what it feels like to be a ”family man” when the two kids staring up at him are essentially strangers? There’s a parallel conceptual cheapness to ”What Women Want”: Nick hears a few private insults, but mostly his magical ability reveals that what women really want is…him! Still, you can feel the alpha-male anxiety that’s at work in both films. It’s not just the fear of commitment – it’s the fear of getting left behind if you don’t commit. In a world where women have more independence than ever, you can bet that Hollywood will continue to spin that fear into tearfully flattering dreams. What Women Want: B; The Family Man: C+