While the debate rages on about whether or not studio films have lost the ability to make anything that isn’t a reboot, remake, or sequel, Taraji. P. Henson headlines What Men Want, the gender-bent remake of Nancy Meyers’ film, What Women Want. It’s unclear what, exactly, anyone was thinking when they decided to make this film, but the damage is done. What Men Want tries too hard at many things. Besides not needing a film about what men want–it’s not like they’re an underrepresented and ignored population–What Men Want would rather be outrageously ridiculous than sincere and that’s where it largely falters.
Ali (Taraji P. Henson) is a sports agent who works hard and is good at her job. She’s constantly working and has high hopes of becoming a partner at her firm. She’s disappointed when she’s passed over for a younger man who doesn’t work as hard as her, but has the bigger sports accounts because he’s, you know, a man. When she brings the lack of promotion up with her boss, he has the audacity to say she wasn’t given partner because she “doesn’t understand men,” as if Ali doesn’t work in an entire industry that favors men and is male-centered.
To prove a point, there’s a scene that has a multi-winning gold medalist female athlete who’s being convinced that she should share a cover with a teenage boy who hasn’t even been signed to an agency, much less won anything. In this scene alone, it’s clear that this film shouldn’t have been made. The erasure of a female athlete by the other sports agents and by Ali’s boss, no matter its realistic nature, is frustrating. Add to the fact that Ali is the only woman working as an agent and feels she must sign a male athlete to her account to be taken more seriously says that these work environments are still dominated by men.
So what is the lesson Ali needs to learn, exactly? That men also have feelings? We know they do. That, to compete in an organization where she herself is consistently undermined, she has to think like a man or act like one? The idea that someone would even tell a woman she doesn’t understand men is a bit ludicrous considering our patriarchal society. We’re told often exactly what men want, it’s not a secret or a mystery that needs to be solved.
At her friend’s bachelorette party, Ali is asked to drink a tea from a supposed psychic (Erykah Badu) and then hits her head while dancing at a club. When she awakens, Ali is able to read men’s thoughts. She’s shocked at first, but then uses it to her advantage to get ahead in signing a major account–up-and-coming basketball player Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie), whose career is run by his controlling father (Tracy Morgan)–to prove to her boss that she does know what men want. But Ali learns very quickly that having mind-reading abilities has its disadvantages, too.
Ali is excluded in a lot of ways by the boys club that dominates her workspace. So much so that it’s laughable to think she should try and understand her colleagues when they’re the ones who work to exclude her. It seems what What Men Want is ultimately trying to say is that the reason women aren’t being promoted at their jobs and why they’re being pushed aside and not taken as seriously as men are is because they lack the gift of understanding exactly what makes men tick. And I can tell you with utmost certainty that that isn’t the case at all.
What Men Want is too often about the men and less about Ali’s self reflection. She does end up learning that she doesn’t need to constantly please men at every turn in order to get what she wants, but it’s far too late before that happens. As Ali navigates her world with these newly acquired gifts, every moment is meant for growth so that by the end, the turning point is noticeable. Only it never is. She’s meant to be a go-getter, a woman who wants to succeed in an agency dominated by men and that’s perfectly fine. It’s hard to be recognized or taken seriously as a woman as it is and Ali puts in the work. But there are several instances, most especially in moments between her dad (Richard Roundtree) and Will (Aldis Hodge), where Henson doesn’t reach the level of vulnerability required for the scenes, so the change never feels quite as authentic as it should.
A lot of the comedy is forced as well. The jokes are made, but they rarely land. There’s a scene at the end of the film that’s meant to make clear the damage Ali can inflict by reading men’s minds, but it turns into a cringe-worthy ruckus instead. The film has no heart, either. It fills in the space with over-the-top spectacle, exchanging sincerity for empty laughs. What’s even sadder is that this film highlights that certain industries are still heavily male and that hasn’t changed in the almost 20 years since the original movie. Ultimately, What Men Want is well-intentioned, but lacks the care and thoughtfulness in the handling of its subject matter.