Nick Marshall, a Chicago advertising executive and alpha male, who grew up with his Las Vegas showgirl mother, is a chauvinist. He is skilled at selling to men and seducing women. Just as he thinks he is headed for a promotion, his manager, Dan, informs him that he is hiring Darcy McGuire instead, to broaden the firm's appeal to women. Also, his estranged 15-year-old daughter Alex is spending two weeks with him while his ex-wife Gigi goes on her honeymoon with her new husband Ted. Alex is embarrassed by Nick, and resents his being protective when he meets her boyfriend.
Desperate to prove himself to Darcy and Dan, Nick attempts to think of copy for a series of feminine products that Darcy distributed at the day's staff meeting. He slips and falls into his bathtub while holding an electric hairdryer, shocking himself. The next day, Nick wakes up and comes to realize that he can hear the innermost thoughts of all women. This proves to be an epiphany for him, as he realizes that most women, especially at work, dislike him and consider him to be sleazy. When he goes to his old divorce therapist, Dr. Perkins (who also disliked him), she realizes his gift and encourages him to learn to use it to his advantage.
Nick eavesdrops on Darcy and sabotages her ideas to use as his own. As he spends more time with Darcy, he realizes he is attracted to her. When he tries to get closer to his daughter, she resents him for trying after so many years of neglect. He is able to bond with her by helping her shop for a prom dress. Using his gift, Nick detects that her boyfriend, who is older than Alex, plans to sleep with her and then dump her, but she does not want Nick's advice.
Nick and Darcy begin to spend more time together, and ultimately they kiss. When he manages to trump Darcy out of her idea for a new Nike ad campaign aimed at women, he later regrets his selfishness, especially as it leads to her being fired. Nick persuades his boss to give Darcy her job back by saying that it was all Darcy's idea.
Over time, Nick succeeds in rekindling some of his female acquaintance/relationships, especially at work. Nick loses his gift during a storm while trying to find a company secretary, Erin, who (telepathic ability revealed) is contemplating suicide. He stops her just in the nick of time and offers her a position for which she previously applied. When Alex's boyfriend dumps her for refusing his sexual advances, Nick consoles her and is able to restore their relationship. Nick finally visits Darcy and explains everything. She fires him, but forgives him and agrees to save him from himself, to which he responds "My hero."Mel Gibson as Nick Marshall: A Chicago executive who acquires the gift to hear what women are thinking.
Helen Hunt as Darcy McGuire: Nick's co-worker who later becomes his love interest.
Marisa Tomei as Lola: Nick's once love interest who works in a coffee shop and is trying to become an actress.
Alan Alda as Dan Wanamaker: Nick's boss.
Lauren Holly as Gigi: Nick's ex-wife, mother of Alexandra, and new wife of Ted who she leaves at the beginning of the movie with to go on their honeymoon.
Robert Briscoe Evans as Ted: Second husband of Gigi and stepfather of Alexandra. He leaves with Gigi at the beginning of the movie to go on their honeymoon.
Ashley Johnson as Alexandra "Alex" Marshall: Nick's daughter who comes to stay with him while her mom Gigi and stepdad Ted go on their honeymoon. She has a boyfriend named Cameron who later dumps her after she reveals her desire not to sleep with him right away. She at first has a rocky relationship with her dad but in the end reconciles with him. She is a huge fan of Meredith Brooks.
Mark Feuerstein as Morgan Farwell
Delta Burke as Eve
Valerie Perrine as Margo
Judy Greer as Erin
Sarah Paulson as Annie
Ana Gasteyer as Sue Cranston
Diana-Maria Riva as Stella
Lisa Edelstein as Dina
Loretta Devine as Flo
Eric Balfour as Cameron: Alexandra's much older boyfriend who is a gameplayer and dumps her after she tells him that she is not ready to sleep with him after the prom.
Logan Lerman as Young Nick Marshall
Bette Midler as Dr. J. M. Perkins (uncredited)
Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an approval rating of 54% based on 121 reviews, with an average rating of 5.7/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Even though Gibson is a good sport in his role, What Women Want is a rather conventional, fluffy comedy-romance that doesn't make good use of its premise." On Metacritic the film has a score of 47 out of 100, based on 33 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews". On CinemaScore, audiences gave the film an average grade of "B+" on an A+ to F scale.
For his portrayal of Nick Marshall, Gibson was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy and a Blockbuster Entertainment Award for Favorite Actor—Comedy/Romance. Hunt won latter award in the Favorite Actress—Comedy/Romance category, while Mark Feuerstein and Marisa Tomei each received a nomination in the supporting categories. It also garnered Tomei a nod for the Satellite Award for Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture, while Ashley Johnson was nominated at the Young Artist Awards.
For his score, composer Alan Silvestri won the ASCAP Award for Top Box Office Films, it received a Saturn Award nomination for "Best Fantasy Film" from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, USA. The film also won the Bogey Award in Platin from the Bogey Awards, Germany. It was also nominated for the Best Casting for Feature Film, Comedy from the Casting Society of America, USA. It received the Golden Screen Award in Germany.
In 2009, the website Pajiba published an article claiming that an inside source had told them that producer and scriptwriter Peter Chiarelli had been currently writing a sequel entitled What Men Want, which would reimagine the concept from the viewpoint of a woman who could hear men's thoughts. They also claimed that Cameron Diaz was to star as its lead. As of 2015, no further development news for the rumored sequel has been released, and the film, if it was in development, is likely in development hell.
A Chinese remake directed by Chen Daming starring Andy Lau and Gong Li was released in 2011.