Well this was a mild surprise. What Men Want (a gender-reversed remake of Mel Gibson’s 2000 comedy What Women Want) arrives with tepid audience anticipation. That anticipation can be directly tied to its zany premise and it’s sub par marketing campaign, to be kind. If you’ve seen any of the trailers or TV spots for the film, What Men Want looks like a disaster. A film where the worst thing about it appears to be the premise itself, or so the trailer implied with its lifeless humor masquerading as the “real thoughts” of men. Not only is the marketing material a misrepresentation of how men really think, the humor seems like it’s straight out of that one SNL sketch that always kills the show. So is this Adam-Sandler-premise-but-with-Taraji-P.-Henson film the disaster that we anticipated? Well, not quite.
The film follows Ali Davis (Henson), who is the only female sports agent at her firm. Ali is aggressive, charismatic, and confident – all traits that typically aid male sports agents. However, she faces roadblocks due to her gender, resulting in her being excluded from work-related and non-work related activities involving her colleagues. After getting passed up for a promotion, Ali vows to sign the potential NBA number 1 draft pick in order to prove her worth. But what really sets up her quest in motion is an encounter with a shaman (played by an unrecognizable Erykah Badu in a show stealing performance), resulting in her drinking a potion that gives her the ability to read men’s minds. Our introduction to these powers are rather unimaginative, as we’re treated to jokes about her doctor smoking crack, or her assistant hating her guts. Eventually, Ali realizes she can use these powers to get the upper hand in the workplace, but her new powers also put a huge strain on her budding romance with her potential love interest Will (Aldis Hodge).
As the film unfolds, it was clear to me that What Men Want had one key strength and one potentially fatal weakness. What tampered by anticipation of the film was the tame representation of the material in the marketing. The previews looked so bland and docile, that I was genuinely surprised to learn upon watching the film that it is R rated. I was fully expecting a PG-13 comedy full of Dad jokes, but what we have is a raunchy, zany screwball comedy which is a pleasant surprise. The film is at it’s best when it embraces it’s weird and over the top situations, accentuating its ludicrous plot points with sensationalized performances. Even the profanity has a purpose, as you’d imagine if real people were faced with such bizarre circumstances, they would react to it profanely whether they were saying it aloud or within their own minds. The film draws comedy from its R rating and profanity, but it isn’t superfluous.
The performances here are simple, but enjoyably dramatic. Henson has no problem anchoring the film, and I don’t believe there’s a single scene where her character doesn’t appear. Being one who typically has chemistry with everyone, Henson wonderfully plays off her boss, her co-workers, her boyfriend, and her circle of girlfriends. However, her friends may be a bit underutilized. Even though they don’t have much to do with the central plot, Ali’s newfound abilities eventually end up affecting her friends’ marriages, but I feel those scenes would have landed better if we had more time to develop those relationships before they collided with the conflict of the story. This isn’t to say we don’t enjoy seeing Henson interact with her inner circle, but their side stories are woefully underdeveloped.
Speaking of underdeveloped, that brings me to the film’s fatal flaw – the premise is a misfire. Premises are tools that should be utilized to present ideas, but What Men Want does a mediocre job of explaining what men really want, how they think, and why we should care. Ali’s power does nothing to actually subvert any of our expectations of the male characters – almost everything we learn could be picked up via body language or context clues (with the lone exceptions of the aforementioned crack gag, and a surprising bit involving a character played by Pete Davidson). Ali does end up finding out unexpected details about her co-worker Kevin (Max Greenfield), and it’s a turning point in the movie for her character, but she doesn’t learn it via her psychic abilities. Kevin just straight up tells her. There’s even a gag involving Henson and one of her potential hook-ups, but the joke isn’t discovered via her psychic abilities. Which, understandably, film is a visual medium, and it could be difficult to display these ideas solely through inner monologue, but inner monologues aren’t the only ways you could depict the inner workings of the mind.
But with all of the issues with the function of the film’s premise, it would’ve still been forgiven if that aspect of the film was actually funny. Alas, the biggest sin of the film is that the central premise is the least funny aspect of it. While the mind reading jokes are better than I anticipated after watching the trailers, they still come up short for the most part, which perhaps the lone exception being a poker game at the midway point of the film. But I had a lot more fun watching the film’s physical comedy, or the performances from the likes of Henson and Erykah Badu. Overall, you feel that the performances are holding of the material rather than the script rising up to meet them. There’s even a cameo from Richard Roundtree, portraying Ali’s dad. His appearance is brief, but still useful as he acts as a representation of single fatherhood, which allows Ali to sympathize and connect with her love interest Will. To be frank, the film’s themes on parenthood and family feel a bit half-cooked, but there’s enough development there to not detest it’s inclusion.
With a film like this, it’s hard to determine if the premise could have been improved upon in the writing stage, or if this is truly the limit of such a hackneyed idea. I prefer to believe the former, and assert that in order to make this idea work you must be all in on what you want the movie to say, as well as how the idea can be maximized for comedy. As often as we hear inner monologues in this film, it’s coincidental that the film itself never manages a full sentence on what it wants to say about the desires of men. Overall, I’m thankful, but I’m also disappointed. What Men Want could have been a lot worse, but it also should have been a whole lot better.