In 2000, Nancy Meyers’s film about a chauvinistic, womanizing ad exec who finds himself with the ability to read women’s minds became a box office hit, raking in nearly $182 million dollars ($378m worldwide) and What Women Want became the highest-grossing romantic comedy of all time until My Big Fat Greek Wedding dethroned it two years later.
Nineteen years later we’re given What Men Want, a gender-swapping remake that finds Taraji P. Henson as overachieving, ballbusting sports agent Ali (named after boxer Muhammad Ali) Davis on the verge of being made a partner within her male-dominated sports agency. Predictably, she’s passed over for an undeserving colleague simply because most of her clients are women rather than athletes who dominate in the big three (MLB, NFL, and NBA).
After confronting her boss over the slight, she’s told to stay in her lane, because it’s what she’s good at. Using this offense as fuel, Ali becomes determined to sign Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie), the projected number one pick in the upcoming NBA draft. Unfortunately, Barry comes with an eccentric, greedy, ego-driven father (Tracy Morgan) who calls himself Joe Dollar. He also calls all the shots for Jamal’s future, making Ali’s goal a bit more difficult.
That is until she drinks some dirty tea from a weed dealing psychic (a scenery-chewing Erykah Badu) on the night of her friend’s bachelorette party and proceeds to knock herself out dancing at a club. When she wakes up she realizes she has the ability to read men’s thoughts. After the subsequent freak-out, Ali realizes she may be able to use her newfound ability to successfully court Jamal and his father while discovering just why her male colleagues continue to railroad her promotion.
While Mel Gibson’s character was a jerk that needed women’s thoughts to help him get in touch with his feminine side in What Women Want, Ali is much more likable, her tough exterior understandable given her work environment and the fact that she was raised by a single father who surrounded her with sports. Ali believes she needs to be ruthless and unrelenting to succeed, and while on one hand that is probably true, she begins to realize some of her male colleagues think she’s the male equivalent of a dick.
You can tell this begins to unsettle Ali, especially when her behavior starts to strain her relationship with not only her friends (played by Phoebe Robinson, Tamala Jones, and Wendi McLendon-Covey), but with her new romantic interest Will (Aldis Hodge), a single father who Ali was initially using as her fake husband to impress Joe Dollar but then, of course, began to have real feelings for when she realizes – or rather, hears – how much he actually adores her.
Director Adam Shankman delivers a movie that is determined to straddle the line between outlandish and heartfelt, but instead, it just feels muddled and disjointed. The comedy is raunchy and silly and there aren’t many genuine laughs. Tracy Morgan essentially plays his character Tracy Jordan from 30 Rock, and Pete Davidson shows up as a closeted gay employee whose only purpose seems to be thinking about dick and saying ”fuck” a lot on the phone. Nearly every thought Ali hears from the men around her is vulgar, idiotic, or nonsensical. Basically, exactly what you would expect in a movie like this.
I found Henson to be the film’s only saving grace. She brings radiance and strength to the role of Ali, not to mention the kind of likability that was most definitely needed, especially towards the end of the film when Ali uses her gift in a cringe-worthy, mean-spirited moment disguised as the spirit of telling the truth. The underlying theme here is: What is the responsibility of someone who finds themselves in Ali’s position? Do they have an obligation to reveal some difficult truths? It’s an interesting question, but unfortunately, the answer is barely dealt with.
Ultimately, Ali doesn’t need to learn to be more feminine, or more accessible to men. She just needs to learn how to empower herself without the approval of the men in her life, and to let her guard down and be open to the idea that she can succeed on her own, rather than depending on being a part of the boy’s club.
I enjoyed What Men Want for Henson’s performance and some brief, fun moments, but other than that, the movie is just a cookie-cutter rom-com trying to project a deeper message and failing.