What Men Want: Never Let Them, by David Bax
“Locker room talk.” “Stay in your lane.” “When they go low, we go high.” What Men Want, Adam Shankman’s remake of Nancy Meyers’ What Women Want, tosses every sound bite it can scrape out of the last few years into a kind of topical potpourri in what feels like a sweaty attempt to justify its own existence. In that respect, the movie is only mildly successful. But, with such a talented and game cast, it probably wasn’t even necessary. What Men Want is likely too lightweight and half-baked to enjoy the cultural staying power of those phrases but this group of actors is at least up to the task of keeping you entertained for two hours.
Taraji P. Henson plays Ali Davis, an Atlanta sports agent who is given some hallucinogenic tea to drink by a psychic (Erykah Badu) at what seems like the most fun bridal shower ever. That plus a conk on the head leaves her with the ability to hear the thoughts of men. Since her career hinges on her ability to sign projected number one NBA draft pick Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie), her new power is definitely a plus. As a side note, I have to also consider it a positive that the NBA signed off on the movie because it would be distracting if Jamal’s lifelong dream were to play for the Atlanta Armadillos of the American Basketball League or whatever. Anyway, this extra-sensory gift is bittersweet, as it also confirms for her every suspicion she holds about being a woman in a male-dominated profession. Her coworkers privately marginalize her and keep her out of the loop, never truly thinking of her as an equal colleague even if they may claim to do so to her face. It’s good for them, then, that Ali is a compassionate person, eventually willing to see their macho posturing and arrogance for the insecurity it really is. And it’s good for her that she doesn’t have too many reservations about using that against them.
Shankman and his team of screenwriters have been, in at least one respect, a little too faithful in adapting the original film. Neither version has nearly as many laughs as the high concept comic premise would seem to guarantee. There’s some heavy lifting done by, as you might expect, the members of the cast with extensive comedy experience. Tracy Morgan plays Jamal’s father—clearly inspired by real life NBA dad and world class self-promoter LaVar Ball—and spends most of the movie confidently barking out nonsense like, “…the worst thing to happen to U.S./China relations since Richard Nixon shot and ate a panda!” And the always reliable Wendi McLendon-Covey wrings all she can out of her small role as one of Ali’s friends, a sanctimonious holy roller. The rest of the cast is energetic and committed but the screenplay keeps falling back on lazy clichés like kink-shaming or tired, farcical set-ups like Ali attempting to keep a group of clients, coworkers and friends in a State Farm Arena sky box from discovering the conflicting lies she’s told them.
At least Meyers had the assistance of cinematographer Dean Cundey to make her film look like as handsome an object as its star. Henson deserves better than the smeary, high-key look that Jim Denault provides.
That said, most of What Men Want’s departure from its source material are welcome. If you’re going to rely on gender stereotypes, for instance, the inner monologues of men aren’t going to be PG-13. But beyond that, it’s the awareness of those stereotypes that makes the movie stand on its own. Whereas Mel Gibson’s character in the original version needed help getting in touch with his feminine side, Ali has no such distance from her masculine side. In fact, the movie argues, it’s exactly her lack of traditional femininity that keeps her out of touch with men, who would prefer she be less ambitious, vocal and so on. Wisely, Want Men Want realizes that, in that case, what men want is their problem, not hers.
Ali’s arc is not about learning to conform to men’s expectations. Instead, it’s about learning to think about others once in a while (not because it’s more feminine, just more human). The problem is, it’s hard to buy that she was ever so cold in the first place. Gibson, unsurprisingly, had no problem pulling off the self-centered prick role. But we like Henson too much to hate her. As a result, What Men Want rarely warms up to any emotional heights above pleasantness.