What Women Dread Rated PG (Dir. Tobe Hooper, starring Mel Gibson, Helen Hunt, Jack Black, Tara Reid, Steven Seagal)
In these times, when studios seem to know exactly what viewers will get but not what they will want, it is gratifying for a critic such as myself to be presented with 'What Women Dread', a new offbeat romantic comedy, sequel to the high grossing 'What Women Want'. In 'What Women Want', Mel Gibson starred as Nick Marshall, a chauvinistic businessman enabled by a paranormal incident involving an accident with a hair dryer to hear what any woman in sight is thinking, and forced in the process into discarding his sexist world-view. This sequel, directed by Tobe Hooper, bravely steps away from the light hearted and whimsical feel of its predecessor whilest retaining essentially the same central conceit. This time around we find Marshall trapped in a loveless marriage with Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt), grinding away his meaningless, non telepathic life in an endless hamster's wheel of an existence. He finds himself psychologically distressed and frustrated by his inability to hear what his wife is thinking, despite suspecting that she is having an affair with one of his other female work colleagues.
Compounding his domestic problems, Marshall is being held to ransom by Janie (Tara Reid), a 17 year old high school cheerleader whom he met, seduced and sodomized at the annual 'Femifest' party that he and Hunt's business - Marshall Maguire's Insect Handling and Sales - holds (we see these events in flashback form, Hooper's groggy camera work knowingly making reference to Federico Cartoni's 1963 film 'LaBat', and a live performance by Nickelback accompanying the climactic anal penetration adding some real zing to proceedings). Janie is now demanding that Marshall pays for her college tuition and also that he buys her a helicopter and 400 pairs of shoes unless he wishes her to reveal their secret to his wife and the authorities.
Though this sub-plot provides nothing little in the way of comic relief (one of the biggest laughs in the screening I was sat in came when Janie slyly asked Marshall if he thought that 'its members sodomizing underage school-girls is what the state wants', and one scene in particular, involving Marshall attempting to wash blood out of jock-strap, almost brought tears to my eyes), it has its own tragic ramifications.
Marshall is on the existential ropes here, and seems unable to snap out of his malaise as he is devoured on both sides by predatory, cynical and spiritually gluttonous bitch-queens. But, as luck would have it, along comes redemption in the unlikely form of an accident involving a straight razor, a fully ran bath and some scented candles. Gibson once again finds himself blessed by a miracle when his wife's friend Paula walks into the bathroom to find him spraying blood six feet across the carpet and begins to scream hysterically. When Marshall jumps out of the bath, attempting to placate Paula, he realises that she is willing to do anything he says in her fear of him. Another huge laugh comes as Marshall tells Paula 'Go down to the 7-11 and get me some plasters. Oh, and a bag of potato chips. And a FUCKIN' BEER!' Gibson is magnificent in these comic sequences, his face akin to a side of ham sat atop two tectonic plates. He segues effortlessly into this 'ham clown' mode having established a depth to Marshall in the earlier, more thousand-yard-stare centred scenes.
An epiphany has occured, and now Gibson is empowered to change his life through the knowledge of what women who are in mortal fear of you will do to avoid strangulation. Cue Gibson, at times in full madcap mode, spying on his wife and kidnapping her therapist in order to discover what she has been dreading happening to her ever since childhood. In order to fulfill her nightmare, Gibson enlists the help of work colleague Sam Spendler, played with relish by funnyman Jack Black. Spendler is a lazy goof, office clown and registered sex offender, and when HE gets involved, we all know there are going to be tears (and laughs!) before bedtime. Viewers (particularly young children), will be delighted by the moment that Black is fired 300 feet through the air by a circus cannon, only to land head first up a co-ed's backside.
It must be mentioned that Tobe Hooper is as able a director of farcical sexual assault as he is of bleak, filtered-lens-viewed impotency anguish, as these Black and Gibson knockabout scenes demonstrate. Previously best known for directing grindhouse shocker ''The Texas Chainsaw Massacre'', Hooper is here given a chance to display a hitherto disguised flair for directing comedy and action that places him all of a sudden at the forefront of the family entertainment market.
Meanwhile, back in Marshall land, Janie is in for a shock as Marshall discovers, quite by accident, that she has a fear of being buried up to her neck in slugs. When a new contract for Slug and Slugsons comes calling at Marshall's place of business, we are left in no doubt what is about to befall the young hussy when Gibson turns his charming rogue's gaze at the camera for a split second, an invigoratingly moment of involute audience courting. For Marshall, his newfound knowledge of what women will urinate into their own hands and drink the contents before confronting is really beginning to pay off, and we cheer him all the way as his life regains its meaning and joy.
But, as in 'What Women Want', Gibson's gift does not just grant him practical use in dispatching with his problems, but also opens his eyes and heart to a new world of oppurtunity. Whilest out on the lam stalking a beautiful young lawyer with a hunting knife concealed in his slacks, Gibson comes to realise that he finds her daily routines- walking her dog to the local hogie store, her secret love of Dire Straits and her nightly habit of undressing and masturbating in front of her bedroom window- are all remarkably cute and special, and resolves to marry her. Jaws will drop and sides will split at the climax of 'What Women Dread', as Gibson is confronted at the altar by his bruised and bloodied wife and mentally scarred high school mistress and decides its time to let rip with the three foot high steel crucifix and a semi-automatic pistol he has stuffed in his cumberbund. Whilest some critics have called this scene a 'grotesque baconian nightmare' and 'virulently misogynistic brutalist claptrap', I for one, as a pathologically unsuccessful and embittered bachelor who hasn't kissed a girl in about five years, was applauding in the aisles.