Film

Review: Taraji P. Henson Deserves Better Than Tone-Deaf What Men Want

There’s a fundamental flaw in What Men Want, the gender-reversed remake of the 2000 hit What Women Want. That film starred Mel Gibson as a chauvinistic advertising exec who, after some minor head trauma, gains the power to hear women’s thoughts, which he then uses to get the upper hand in business. In that film, the presumption is that women are a mystery and that their deepest thoughts are something that no man could understand without this psychic ability. Assuming that’s true for the sake of argument, the problem with What Men Want, directed by Adam Shankman (Hairspray, Rock of Ages), is that men’s thoughts aren’t nearly as difficult to figure out, and so all of the inner monologues that sports agent Ali Davis (Taraji P. Henson) ends up hearing aren’t tough to predict.

What Men Want

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Even still, Ali is able to use her newfound powers—gained after a rager of a girls night, during which she both drank a strange tea given to her by a psychic (Erykah Badu) and knocked her head—to gain the upper hand in a profession that is decidedly male dominated. After once again being passed up for a partnership at her agency by her boss (an inspired turn by Brian Bosworth), Ali is ready to call it quits when these abilities suddenly enter her life. She and her loyal assistant Brandon (Josh Brener from “Silicon Valley”) aim to land a big-fish client in rookie basketball player Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie), whose father Joe (Tracy Morgan) monitors the kid’s professional and personal life like a hawk. Ali is able to get into the family’s good grace thanks to knowing Joe’s thoughts while also leaning into the parts of Jamal’s feelings that don’t line up with his father’s.

There are certainly plenty of opportunities to make this scenario work, but sadly Henson is given little more to do than yell and perform a strange brand of physical comedy that does not play to her strengths as a top-notch dramatic actor who also has the ability to be wildly engaging, charming and funny. Nothing about the place where she works, her friendships or relationships feels real, so the shift between pre-mind reading Ali and post- doesn’t really seem that pronounced.

The film’s quiet moments work the best. Scenes between Ali and her boxing coach father (Richard Roundtree) feel honest and sweet, and despite her best efforts to wreck it, her fledgling romantic involvement with a single father named Will (Aldis Hodge) has the beginnings of a nice romantic comedy. But she is so set on using Will and his son as props in her scheme to land Jamal that even that feels gross most of the time. The rest of the film is a screech-fest. Whenever Aly is around her girlfriends (Phoebe Robinson, Wendi McLendon-Covey, and Tamala Jones), I wanted to claw my eardrums out, even though I think these women have been quite funny in other roles.

The other big problem with What Men Want is that, despite its R rating, it doesn’t feel like it goes hard enough. Sure, there are a whole lot of four-letter words, but if we’re going to get into men’s awful thoughts, let’s do it so they can be realistically dealt with. By casting one of the strongest black female performers as your lead, you’d think the filmmakers might have the guts to deal with the possibility of both sexist and racist undertones in their attitudes toward Ali in the workplace. Instead, the worst you get is someone checking out her ass and thinking “Not bad,” which gets a smile from her. The opportunity was there to make one of Ali’s co-workers a closet racist, but rather than dealing with that and having him face the consequences, Ali discovers that she has more allies than she originally believed. What a hard lesson that must have been.

The film tosses in a few real-life athletes and other famous faces for easy laughs (a secret, high-stakes poker game that features the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and Mark Cuban is another wasted opportunity), but none of the elements of What Men Want really come together. If even one part of the film had worked—if it had been funnier or a more scathing social commentary—I might have given it a pass despite other flaws. But everything about it systematically lets us down and fails to meet even baseline expectations, which is too bad because Henson is a genuine talent who is capable of and deserves better.

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