What Men Want | Adam Shankman | February 8, 2019
What Women Want, a now-dated battle of the sexes-esque Nancy Myers film, is a faint memory. The only moment that comes to mind is Mel Gibson getting electrocuted, likely somewhere in act 1. What Men Want, the loose and updated remake from varied comedy-drama-musical director Adam Shankman (who hasn’t directed a film since 2012’s Rock of Ages), ups the raunch factor, likely won’t age well, and doesn’t have any such similar moment for lead Taraji P. Henson.
What Men Want follows Ali Davis (Henson), an aggressive, single, and relatively self-centered “Type A” agent for a large Atlanta-based sports marketing agency who, after not getting a promotion to partner, drinks herbal tea from a rent-a-psychic named Sister (Erykah Badu) at a Girls’ Night Party before getting a whack on the head that results in the ability to hear mens’ thoughts. She uses this new-found ability to try and sign rising NBA star Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie) by winning over him and his dad Joe “Dolla” Barry (a one-note Tracey Morgan doing his best Lavar Ball), make partner, improve her relationship with her boxer dad Skip (Richard Roundtree a.k.a. Shaft) develop her relationship with bartender and one-night-stand Will (Underground and Leverage‘s Aldis Hodge – a saving grace, if anything) and his son Ben (Auston Jon Moore).
I don’t know what it is about head trauma in comedic wish fulfillment movies with rom-com angles, but after recent films like I Feel Pretty and Isn’t It Romantic, What Men Want feels incredibly trite and by the book. That, in part, is why the film doesn’t inspire confidence. Potentially serious head trauma isn’t funny; while such bumps on the head likely wouldn’t cause a concussion, the possibility still stands, and the fact that the aforementioned films brush off the possibility with “Now I’ve got magical thinking” (from an altered outlook on life to being stuck in a rom-com to hearing men’s thoughts) smacks of dismissal.
Moving onto more overarching things about What Men Want, the characters as a whole are pretty flat. The actors (not counting the athlete cameos) are too recognizable for the film’s own good, and everyone clutters the film. Daily Show alum Jason Jones, SNL‘s Pete Davidson, and The Neighborhood‘s Max Greenfield all appear as fellow partners/agents at Ali’s firm, and they’re utilized as relative throwaway characters with a small recurring gag or two (depending on the character). Ali’s group of friends is also a who’s who, from The Goldbergs‘ Wendi McLendon-Covey as the one religious white friend Olivia to Castle‘s Tamala Jones as the soon-to-be-married Mari to author and 2 Dope Queens co-host Phoebe Robinson as Ciarra. There’s also no sense of how Ali knows the three of them or how they’re friends (unless I somehow missed a key bit of exposition), which further reduces their characters to tropes. Additionally, Josh Brener is supporting as Brandon, Ali’s assistant, who is on the receiving end of nearly all of the film’s gay jokes, starting with Ali explicitly calling him out as “my gay assistant” not even five minutes in. He does, though, get some development outside of the token gay character, but not as much as one might hope.
As for the film itself, it’s a loose remake, and it goes overboard, dragging out the plot and several gags. It’s too zeitgeist-y, with Ali’s boss (former NFL player turned commentator Brian Bosworth) mentioning #MeToo and Ben donning Ali’s underwear for a Black Panther reference, among other moments which likely won’t age too well. And while, yes, it’s a movie, the fact that Ali’s agency is predominantly bro-y white men in 2018 doesn’t fly. Otherwise, given that one of the credited writers (Tina Gordon) is also the writer & director behind Little (an upcoming body/age-swap comedy with Insecure‘s Issa Rae, Regina Hall, and Black-ish‘s Marsai Martin), if this film wasn’t as restricted by by-the-book plot point or genre limits, it could have been better. Secondly, Paramount has a marketing problem, from dropping a new mismatched poster within two weeks of release to packing the trailers with cringe-inducing awkward raunchy bits from the film that check off all the expected genre moments. If you’re a studio that drops a new rom-com poster that 1) doesn’t convey much about the film, and 2) pairs up the lead with a supporting cast member who isn’t even the love interest in the last week or two before release, you’re doing it wrong. And lastly, the lead-up to the film’s release was stacked with early audience-focused fan and Girls’ Night promo screenings, and the review embargo was up at 1 AM the day before release. It’s almost as if the studio wanted the audience reactions to outweigh the critical reception because they have a stinker on their hands that’ll still make bank … nah, that’s too obvious.
If anything, there are a few saving graces within What Men Want that somewhat redeem it. Aldis Hodge has some good moments with Taraji and Auston, which add some character depth. Brener’s relationship with another supporting cast member, while underdeveloped and practically shipped, is refreshing to see. And come the apology tour at the end of the film, Ali lightens up a little, has some good heart-to-hearts, and ends on a hopeful and less cynical career note. But that doesn’t make things better, especially after everything that came before it in this 2-hour film. (However, if you want to see a better behind-the-scenes sports-related movie, there’s always High Flying Bird on Netflix.)