Some movies just feel tailor-made for gender-swapped remakes. We got two of them last year in the forms of Ocean’s 8 and Overboard, the former mostly decent, the latter not so much. It may not be the most creative choice in the world, and we saw how ugly it can get when studios do that to beloved properties – I’m of course talking about 2016’s Ghostbusters – but when gender roles are such an integral part of your film, sometimes it just makes so much sense to flip the script, literally. Case in point, all Paramount had to do with the Mel Gibson romcom What Women Want was drop the first two letters in “Women” – not to mention drop the Gibson as well – and bada bing bada boom you’ve got yourself a new pair of shoes. Okay, in all seriousness though, this is a financially smart move, as you repurpose a recognizable film and tweak it just enough so the same demographic is intrigued and gives you another helping of box office returns. From a screenwriter’s perspective, that may not be the most appealing project to work on, and it would be feasible to see just how lazy the end product could be. Which, in all honesty, was what I was expecting from What Men Want, so I’m pleased to say I’m delightfully surprised. Relatively, but relatively is good enough for me. And a lot of that can be chalked up to a hot and heavy first act, as star Taraji P. Henson is given full range to own the scenes and comedic beats. I’ve been a little down on her as of late, so it’s certainly welcome to see her take control in only the way she can. Granted, this is the kind of film whose central premise is going to elicit rapid-fire one-liners, and a lot of them are going to miss the mark. But the ones that do land are able to elevate this otherwise run-of-the-mill comedy above its own derivativeness.
What Men Want follows workaholic sports agent Ali Davis (Taraji P. Henson), who despite all her best efforts can’t get the respect – let alone the promotion – she deserves from the men at her agency. After hashing out these gripes with a psychic (Erykah Badu) at a bachelorette party, she awakes the next day to find that the woman has imbued her with the power to hear men’s thoughts. Determined to make a name for herself, she sets out to use her newfound abilities to sign wunderkind and soon-to-be first-round draft-pick Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie), even if she has to please his obstinate father Joe (Tracy Morgan) to do so. Along the way, she finds she needs to sell herself as a family woman to make the sale, so she gloms onto recent flame Will (Aldis Hodge) and his son Ben (Auston Jon Moore), creating a facade that has the potential to hurt those around her. But as she pursues that elusive sign, she might just find out not only what men want, but what they need.
If you break down the actual plot mechanics and character motivations of this movie, it is cookie-cutter as all hell. Granted, I haven’t actually seen the original film, but I imagine it ain’t a whole lot different. What I do know about that one is that it’s rated PG-13, so if there’s anything What Men Want capitalizes further on, it’s that sweet, sweet creative freedom that comes with an R rating, one that allows it to spice up the familiar trappings of an eager-to-please romantic comedy tenfold. With aplomb, I might add. When I sat down for this movie, I wasn’t expecting any miracles, so you can imagine my delight when it came out of the gates hot and heavy with a no-holds-barred Taraji P. Henson at the forefront. Seriously, I didn’t laugh more in any twenty-minute interval of any movie in the last few months than I did in the first twenty minutes of this one – ugh, that was a grueling sentence to structure .
Which brings me to the next ninety-seven minutes. While the execution behind its central concept is by no means lazy or impotent, it still didn’t match the pace set up initially. Which is understandable, I suppose. I mean, do you think you could come up with two-hundred-odd one-liners perfectly encapsulating the male consciousness in a way that is both snappy and humorous? Yeah, didn’t think so. But, What Men Want definitely tries to, and even the fraction of the amount it dishes out are able to keep it feeling fresh and appropriately ribald. So if the admittedly recycled concept was the only thing enticing you, I might have bad news for you, but let me get into why you should consider this for your obligatory Valentine’s Day date movie.
Taraji P. [expletive] Henson. After her powerhouse turn in the smash hit Hidden Figures in 2016, you’d think she was on the brink of breaking out as a full-fledged star of her own. However, the leading-lady projects she followed it up with were less than promising, with Acrimony and Proud Mary being my least favorite and fifth-least favorite films of 2018, respectively. She definitely gave it her all in those ones, but no matter how big she got, she proved no match to the truly atrocious writing and filmmaking both those exhibited. Hell, they actually made her look pretty bad, and I was about to abandon hope of her reaching her full potential. That is, until this one came out, as instead of trying to out-crazy her, What Men Want worships at her feet and follows her example. This is the perfect vehicle for someone of her talents, and I’m so glad they pegged her to lead this one when they could have gone with literally anyone with more name recognition. In short, she owns this movie and makes you invested in an otherwise generic comedy with a banal twist.
And thank god. 2019 was proving to be a real stinkfest there for a while, especially since Glass failed to meet expectations. While I certainly won’t write home about it and will probably forget it altogether as soon as Henson does something better, I’m still glad I gave it a chance.
Final Score: 6/10