Men and women want a better movie than What Men Want
In anticipations of What Men Want, I took it upon myself to watch What Women Want, the precursor to the upcoming gender swapped reboot, and in doing so, I discovered that just about every preconception I had about the film was wholly inaccurate. I expected to hate it, but was instead pleasantly surprised. I didn’t just lightly enjoy it either - I loved it! In a genre I typically avoid (magical romcom), What Women Want somehow felt fresh, and despite being almost two decades old, the gender politics hold up pretty well, even in a world where the most mature conversation about gender relations is often too easily reduced to boys vs. girls claptrap. Everything I dreaded (unfunny jokes, disconnected plotting, empty shells presented as characters) was absent, and I found myself absolutely charmed by the story. The movie that I expected from What Women Want wouldn’t come out until 2019 - and it would be called What Men Want.
Listen, I don’t want to come down too hard on a movie that was pretty explicitly designed without me in mind. This is a movie for someone else entirely, and I’m sure they will enjoy it well enough, but for my money, this tired reboot brings nothing new to the table, and is often flat-out boring. Taraji P. Henson clearly has a great comedy within her, but this sure as hell ain’t it.
Henson plays Ali Davis, a sports agent who was recently passed over for a promotion to partner at her firm. It’s a pretty aggressive snub, and it’s clearly rooted in sexism. Her company, cleverly titled SWM (Summit Worldwide Management is what it officially stands for) is a total boys club, and even though Ali puts up the best numbers in the firm, she’s routinely advised to stay in her lane. That night while at her best friend’s bachelorette party, Ali has a session with a goofy novelty psychic (Erykah Badu, who provides the film’s only laughs) who feeds her a “magical tea” with the inclination to open her mind up and allow her to connect with men in a way that could potentially help both her career and dating life. The film is unsure over whether it’s the tea or an eventual bump to the noggin which gives Ali the power to literally hear men’s thoughts, but regardless, by the next morning Ali is blessed/cursed with the ability to do just that. This new superpower gives her a professional and personal edge in a world dominated by men, but of course, these benefits come with a host of liabilities and lessons to learn.
I am pleased to report that the gender politics is one way in which What Men Want matches its predecessor. Plenty of sorry truths are depicted in the myriad ways which gendered assumptions reduce discourse and dehumanize people, and it’s never done in a way that posits blanket advocacy of one sex over the other. Instead, it paints a picture of a world which is fueled by tribalism, and shows how such mentalities affect everyone. One can’t help but see Ali’s workplace plight and recognize shades of it in just about any professional setting. She gets sidelined because she’s a woman, but at the same time, she doesn’t make it easy for her coworkers to like her. Beyond that, however, this turgid comedy has very little to offer besides constant product placement of Stella Artois, Fiji water, and Ciroc vodka. With such heavy hitter brands throwing their money behind it, it’s a wonder that What Men Want looks so cheap. Like, BBC sitcom cheap.
The main comedic device, namely that Ali has to navigate her life while being bombarded with the thoughts of the men around her, is barely used, and when it is, it’s done in a way that makes very little sense. In the original film, the filmmakers took care to maintain a rhythm between outward conversation and inner monologues. This is not the case here. In fact, if someone were to cut out all of the “thought” dialogue, much of the movie would consist of actors looking at one another silently, every once in a while interjecting with a disparate piece of functionally nonsensical conversation. I’m reminded of an experiment which made the internet rounds years ago called “The Silent Wonder Years.” Check it out:
Given the way this plays in the moment, and the fact that the script was written by three disconnected authors, I am tempted to assume that a lot of the “thought dialogue” was written after the fact, and that the filmmakers arranged each scene to have enough silence to insert some random non-sequiturs into the margins. You’d think this would be a perfect device in which to issue some prime Tracy Morgan humor, but against all odds, it doesn’t work with his style at all. As the father of one of Ali’s potential clients, he has a ton of interaction with our hero, and every gag he’s tasked with lands with a thud. He’ll say something random, think something random, and then say something else random, and it just doesn’t work. He still fares better than the other men, however, whose thoughts, even when written to integrate with the scene, are presented with such little energy that it could be argued that a better movie wouldn’t have shown us Ali’s point of view at all, instead letting us be an observer who knows about her ability, but doesn’t share it. But that would question the need to reboot this premise entirely, sooo...
That’s really the biggest problem with the film: There’s just no energy to it. The jokes are long-winded and ineffective, the characters are placeholders, and the plot is crammed with so much disparate detail that it drowns under its own weight despite being a pretty weightless affair. Half of the humor is rooted in misunderstandings resultant of Ali’s powers, while the other half comes from zany buffoonery inconsistent with what is supposed to be, at least prior to a single instance of magical interference, a real-world narrative. And by the time everything comes full circle, I’m not sure how much Ali’s dalliance with the supernatural is even integral to her story. Things just kind of work out. She certainly doesn’t grow as a character the way that her predecessor did in What Women Want. In fact, the only reason we can assume she’s grown at all is that the people around her say so. These folks also seem largely unmoved by the fact that literal magic has occurred. They certainly don’t have a tough time believing it.
A misquote, but not by much: “Ali, why didn’t you tell us you had magic powers?!? We’d have understood!”
All in all, this bland, overlong film swings and misses way more often than it connects. Even the audience I was with seemed largely disinterested. But as I said before, Taraji P. Henson will one day give us a great comedy. That much is clear.
What Men Want opens today in Philly theaters.