What Men Want
Though its premise is dated and its character arcs simplistic, What Men Want pulls itself up with some good performances.
Why anyone would look back at the 2000 Mel Gibson vehicle What Women Want as a film ripe for an update is completely beyond me. The gender and race swap takes the sting off that film’s aggressive pessimism towards social politics of the era, and gives What Men Want a little more to say about women in the workplace, but it’s still a little shocking that the updated movie is not as offensive as it might have been.
In this version, Ali (Taraji P. Henson) is a no-nonsense sports agent in Atlanta. She’s a Type-A, high energy woman of the world who knows precisely what she wants, and is smart and powerful enough to usually get it. What Ali wants is to make partner at her firm. She has the best numbers of any agent, she’s hungry for the job, and she’s confident enough to know she deserves it. At the morning conference room meeting where she assumes she’s getting that coveted promotion, she not only fails to get the offer, she embarrasses herself in front of the whole company in the process.
That night, Ali goes to her friends’ low-key bachelorette party, where she gets some much needed social support and some unrequested advice from a psychic. Sister (Erykah Badu) makes Ali drink some wacky tea and tries to give her advice to deal with her sexist boss. When the group of ladies then go out drinking and dancing, Ali hits her head, hard. The next morning, she can hear men’s thoughts.
How convenient! Now Ali can use her power for both good and evil to get ahead at her agency, win over some high-profile clients, and have some hilarious encounters along the way.
This silly premise is saved by Henson’s likeable interpretation of Ali. She could have been an angry ball-buster (and if she were a man, no one would describe her as such, but I digress), but her character truly comes from a good place. She likes her job and she’s damn good at it. Some personal development is ultimately needed to help her get ahead, but because Henson injects tenderness into Ali, this is not a personal revolution, merely a tweak into making her a better team player.
The other major kudos in What Men Want goes to Badu. She’s beyond hilarious in every second she has on screen. The psychic Sister had the audience in my theater laughing so hard we missed several of her rapid-fire jokes. Some of that is due to the writing of this kooky lady, but Badu is definitely owed a lot for delivering such an absurd character with gusto.
While an overall serviceable and often funny comedy, What Men Want does its best to dodge the heavier issues it could have taken on. Ali calls out her boss (Brian “The Boz” Bosworth) on his sexism and racism, but in the end, the film essentially argues that it was Ali’s unwillingness to be a team player that held her back. The movie never makes the mistake of attributing her behavior to being unladylike, but it does fail to at least acknowledge the greater systemic and cultural context of a black woman struggling to get ahead in her career.
What Men Want is not perfect, but it can be pretty funny. For an escapist comedy, it’s a perfectly adequate way to spend two hours.