I’m gonna be straight up here: I like watching Nancy Meyers’ What Women Want from time to time. A pre-meltdown Mel Gibson and an absolutely delightful Helen Hunt aided and abetted by a supporting cast which includes the likes of Ashley Johnson, Alan Alda, Judy Greer, and Bette Midler? What couldn’t you like about it? (Oh, yeah – that’s a loaded question.) Even though the cast is able and game, the film barely touched the possibilities of a man suddenly gifted the ability to hear women’s thoughts. The entire script lives in the frothy and the superficial, and the remake – What Men Want – doesn’t differ much in that department, but there’s more at work here than the frothy and superficial.
Except for a gender switch, more overt sexual situations, and the use of more adult language, What Men Want stays largely in the world of surface appearances, with the occasional dive into the more personal. It hits much more than it misses, and it exceeds the original, both thematically and comedically. There are times when you can almost see its muscles straining to get up those last few rungs on the comedy ladder, but whether it succeeds depends entirely on the viewer. To be sure, there are some laugh-out-loud-‘til-you-snort moments, and there are bits which genuinely pull at your heartstrings, but you have to wade through some iffiness to get there.
Making it easy for us to enjoy What Men Want is Taraji P. Henson, who absolutely exalts this movie it as high-level sports agent Alison Davis, one of a few women in her chosen profession, not to mention one of the only few women at her firm. As she’s in every scene (seriously, not one minute of this film takes place outside her purview), she possesses the strength and wit to carry this film handily, with her expressive face, body, and tone providing the thrust for the comedy to stick its landing.
Alison’s a driven woman, proving herself to be just as good an agent as the rest of the male-dominated table at which she sits. She’s just about earned a promotion to firm partner, but when she gets passed over in favor of yet another sack of XY chromosomes, she literally gets told to stay in her lane. Among her faults, as listed by her boss Nick (Brian Bosworth): not being a team player and her failings in signing a “Big Three” (NFL, NBA, MLB) athlete. She’s fighting double-time to swim upstream with the rest of them, with her harried assistant Brandon (played preciously by Josh Brener) being her only company and confidant.
So after a girls’ night includes wild-haired psychic Sister (Erykah Badu) giving Alison potentially laced tea, partying up in a club (mad props for using 2 Live Crew’s “Hoochie Mama”), and Alison knocking herself out on a DJ table, she wakes up with men’s thoughts ringing in her ears. No matter where she turns, she hears the worst things brewing in their heads. Perverted, financial, egotistical, and self-serving thoughts fly unbounded, with Alison catching all of it. Only after Sister advises to use this odd occurrence to her advantage does Alison begin to accept this gift.
This is where this film’s R-rating and script get it right over the original; there was no possible way this film could exist in Nancy Meyers’ world where everyone’s affluent, white, and genteel. Here’s a hot take: men are pigs (myself included), and there wasn’t a thought in this film which didn’t ring true. No matter what we might say, we’re way too concerned about adequacy – what’s in our wallet, how we’re doing at our jobs, are we good in the bedroom – and we puff our chests out like we’re supermen to make up for those feelings. Tina Gordon, Alex Gregory, and Peter Huyck’s script doesn’t just poke fun at this notion; it straight-up slams it like an unlucky bastard on the receiving end of a wrestler’s Powerbomb.
That’s much of what works about What Men Want. What also works is when the film steps back from its all-go-no-quit style and recedes into genuine moments, like those between Alison and some of the men in her life, including her father Skip (Richard Roundtree), NBA prospect Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie), and love interest Will (Aldis Hodge). These, in addition to Brandon, are some of the film’s better examples of men; while some of their mind interactions are funny, they’re the only people who truly appreciate Alison for what she brings to their lives.
What doesn’t quite work is how the film tries to push some of its comedy on us without actually being funny. One of Alison’s girlfriends, Olivia (Wendy McLendon-Covey), punctuates almost every line she speaks with a reference to Jesus’ role in her life. McLendon-Covey plays it with a curiously bland kind of comedy; it was somewhat funny the first time she says it, but by the end of the film, it’s become boorish and ultimately gets undone with something she says in the mid-credits scenes. Likewise, Tracy Morgan’s blather-spouting sports dad “Joe Dolla” Barry – an obvious reference to the recent headline-grabbing LaVar Ball – pours it on so thick, it’s hard to put a pin on him and what he’s up to. Only toward the end does he shed his goofy persona and let Alison see the real Joe Barry; we’re asked to simply put aside all of his craziness with one small exchange.
The film wants us to enjoy the “thoughts spoken out loud” trope so much, it forgets to tie everything together satisfyingly, dumping all of the conflict resolution at the tag end of the film in one fell swoop. I’m not asking for realism, ‘cause there’s no fun in asking it from What Men Want; it’s simply a lot to take in and gloss over in the space of ten minutes after the film has had us rollicking in our seats for almost two hours. The sudden turn from brash and vulgar to sweet with breakneck speed is jarring, like the rollercoaster didn’t know how to end; it just ends. (Well, save for the mid-credits shenanigans, which are just there for fun, not to further the story.) It’s a problem I felt with the original, and it’s replicated itself here.
But with Taraji P. Henson at the wheel, What Men Want is a vibrant look at a woman going for what she wants and getting it at any cost, then realizing what the cost actually is. It’s a great dig into the ribs of the male-driven sports milieu, dressing down egos and personalities, poking fun at everybody in Alison’s microcosm. What Men Want succeeds where the original skipped; it’s more diverse, down-to-earth, and identifiable, with laughs a-plenty and a few good lessons imparted here and there. The differences between Mel Gibson’s Nick (yes, Bosworth’s character is a name-check) and Henson’s Alison couldn’t be more stark – he’s a white, womanizing ad exec, she’s a black woman in a man’s world. By making Alison more of a struggling hero instead of a man who fails up, What Men Want speaks more to those fighting every day to be heard and accepted, and it’s a stronger film for it.