HomeMoviesReview: What Men Want is Fun, but Not Great

Review: What Men Want is Fun, but Not Great

What Men Want
Photo Credit: Jess Miglio/Paramount

What Women Want hasn’t exactly aged well. When it was released in 2000, the concept seemed progressive: a ladies man suddenly gains the ability to hear women’s thoughts and he learns to be a better, more sensitive man because of it. Now, it’s hard to watch without cringing. There are gay jokes, the plot is driven by the guy trying to sabotage his female coworker so he can get a promotion instead and worst of all, Mel Gibson plays the lead. Still, the core concept is a good one and ripe for a remake in this climate. Enter What Men Want.

Directed by Adam Shankman (Hairspray, A Walk to Remember), it stars Taraji P. Henson as Ali, a sports agent who keeps getting passed over for a promotion because her office is a boys club. Thanks to an alcohol-fueled accident at her friend’s bachelorette party, she suddenly gains the ability to hear what men think and soon uses it to her advantage as she tries to woo both a promising young basketball prospect (Shane Paul McGhie) with a Lavar Ball-esque father played by Tracy Morgan and a handsome bartender with whom she has a one-night stand.

At first glance, the set up seems ripe for commentary on the current state of gender politics. Post #MeToo, it’s all too easy to imagine the heinous things Ali would overhear and writers Tina Gordon, Peter Huyck and Alex Gregory mine plenty of comedy from them. There are the men who leer at her and other women, there are the men whose arrogant self-entitlement only gets louder in their minds and there are even a few with crushing self-doubt hiding behind their smug façades. It’s all very funny and, thankfully, not too upsetting.

More interesting, though, is the careful line the film has to walk in order to explore what Ali needs to learn from the men she overhears. A lesser film would make Ali into a hateful shrew in need of taming, but both the film and Henson are more subtle than that. Ali comes by her flaws honestly. She’s mean to her assistant, Brandon (Josh Brener), whose desire to become an agent she dismisses with condescension and her power to hear men’s thoughts makes her even more prone than before to see people as a means to an end rather than actual people. She’s mercenary and a little mean, but the movie is careful to point out it’s not the fact that she’s a working woman that means she’s in need of softening, it’s that she’s self-centered and treats everyone horribly because of it. She’s almost as bad as the men she works with, she just isn’t a misogynist on top of it all.

Given that, What Men Want probably sounds like a less fun movie than it actually is. Thankfully, it’s filled with moments so good that one woman in my audience raised her hands straight up in the air and screamed “Jesuuuuus!” Many of those moments (though not that one) are thanks to Erykah Badu as the kooky psychic, Sister. The cast is stacked with comedy pros like former New Girl star, Max Greenfield as a fellow agent and Bridesmaids/The Goldbergs star, Wendi McLendon-Covey as Ali’s judgmental religious friend, but it’s Badu who almost runs away with the movie. From the moment she steps onscreen, Sister is a weirdo you can’t stop watching. Whether it’s the triumphant grunt she gives every time she slaps down a tarot card or the credits sequence where she seems to improvise with the cast, her performance is precisely in line with the film’s mostly wild, silly tone.

Fittingly, the only actor who matches Badu is Henson herself. In her hands, Ali is fully-realized and she effortlessly pulls off every moment. She’s crazed and panicked when Ali first starts to hear men’s thoughts, she’s sexy when Ali flirts with Will or her hunky neighbor played by Kellan Lutz, and she’s powerful and cunning when Ali is trying to close a deal. Henson seems capable of pretty much anything—and that’s exactly why it’s so disappointing that What Men Want isn’t willing to let her really push the character to the limits of her likability.

Ali does a lot of questionable things (using Will and his son Ben as “props” in her quest to attract a big client) and is pretty horrible to nearly everyone she knows (her friends, Brandon, nearly everyone except her father), but she never does anything truly hatable. What makes a rom-com like My Best Friend’s Wedding so exciting is that it basically makes a likable protagonist out of a villain through Julia Roberts’ character. Ali faces setbacks, but they’re treated with such a light touch that it’s difficult to take them seriously. All of these characters are obviously caricatures, so there’s no point in seeing their anger or betrayal with much sympathy. They’ll get over it soon enough.

What Women Want was a decent movie for its time, but it’s not the kind of rom-com with staying power. Unfortunately, its remake seems destined for the same fate. Despite a game and talented cast and a promising concept, What Men Want is too focused on fun to dig too deep. It avoids commentary on the ways women must compromise in order to make it in a world dominated by men by making its protagonist’s problems too personal, too self-centered to read a larger message into them. Sure it’s a helluva lot of fun, but is that really enough?

Rating: 6.5/10

What Men Want is currently playing in select theaters nationwide, it opens everywhere on February 8.

Marisa Carpico
Marisa Carpico
By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to.

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