Make no mistake, Taraji P. Henson’s new comedy, “What Men Want,” is not some silly movie with no deeper purpose than to make the audience laugh (although it does do that). Directed by Adam Shankman and based on the Mel Gibson-Helen Hunt “What Women Want” from 2000, this film is very concerned about power dynamics and the different expectations people have for men and women.
Henson, who gives a fantastic performance, stars as Ali Davis, a hard-hitting, take no prisoners, sports agent; one who is great at what she does and largely deserving of a partnership at her firm, but someone who is not a team player. She does not get along with her male colleagues (including characters played by Max Greenfield and Jason Jones), treats her assistant (Josh Brener) horribly, and always seems at something of a distance from her female friends (Tamala Jones, Wendi McLendon-Covey, and Phoebe Robinson).
The question then is—and the film goes so far as to ask it out loud rather than simply leave it implied—whether Ali’s attitude would be acceptable if she were a man. Would she then be admired for her single-minded focus, would she be a partner in the firm rather than being seen as purely antagonistic? At least in some moments of the film, she believes so, but her ability to read men’s minds (possibly caused by some funky tea given to her by a psychic played by Erykah Badu) leads her to believe that her actions would always be seen with disdain.
Whatever answers may be asserted, there is no good way to really get to the truth of the matter. The issue is that it is impossible to test the validity of any answer because we never get to see a man act in the same fashion. Consequently, it is simply not something that we can ever truly know.
That said, the movie does seem to come down on the attitude never being acceptable, with Ali changing her stance and becoming a “better” person as the film progresses. It is undoubtedly true that she will have more friends with a changed approach and perhaps a better career as well, but that is not the same thing as answering this core issue. Even so, it is, perhaps, the best approach a movie can offer.
As “What Men Want” pursues the issue, it shows us Ali trying to sign a soon-to-be-drafted basketball player (Shane Paul McGhie), schmooze the player’s overbearing father (Tracy Morgan), date a single dad (Aldis Hodge), chat with her own father (Richard Roundtree), and deal with all the aforementioned social- and work-life problems. In other words, there is a whole lot going on here. Even if they are included in an attempt to make sure that we get to see all the various facets of Ali, the sheer number of plots that exist here are included to the film’s detriment. None of the storylines are as deep and fully explored as they might be because the film has to find room for all of them. Then, before the credits can role, all those storylines have to be closed and so the audience is treated to multiple endings.
The entire affair is a meandering one. There are lulls in the proceedings, scenes that feel repetitive, and too much that is glossed over. There is more than one moment where the audience desperately wants to know what the man opposite Ali is thinking, when it would help both her and the audience know what is really taking place, but where those thoughts are absent for no discernible reason.
What is never absent though is Henson’s charisma. No matter what Ali is going through and no matter how poorly she is acting, Henson doesn’t just pull the viewer along, she makes us want to take the trip. We are moved through the proceedings by Henson and the belief that she can make up for any shortcomings in the film itself. That is too big an ask, but she does make “What Men Want” more than watchable.
photo credit: Paramount Pictures