Nancy Meyer’s 2000 rom-com fantasy “What Women Want” succeeded because it imbued an inane premise with purpose: The idea that alpha male Mel Gibson could suddenly hear the thoughts of the opposite sex yielded a savvy critique of workplace sexism. Nearly 20 years later, the loose remake “What Men Want” offers something more and less at the same time.
On the one hand, the movie fits the zeitgeist, foregrounding a strong-willed woman. The gender-flipped revision gives Taraji P. Henson the welcome opportunity to play a fast-talking hotshot who intimidates male colleagues at every turn, and her energetic performance provides a hysterical, often sobering window into the challenges facing a black woman in a white man’s world. But the dumb, predictable studio comedy surrounding her plight lacks the same sophisticated bite.
Still, “What Men Want” establishes its core target in credible terms. “You don’t connect well with men,” Ali (Henson) is told by her obnoxious boss at the high-profile sports management firm, after she fails to make partner. Seething, she speeds off on a self-destructive warpath — after announcing plans to sign rising basketball star Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie), she gets hammered and sleeps with the bartender, Will (a muted Aldis Hodge); from there, she heads right into another party the following night, celebrating the imminent wedding of close pal Ciarra (Phoebe Robinson) over drinks with fellow girlfriend Olivia (Wendi McLendon-Covey). This being another raunchy, female-centric comedy from “Girls Trip” super-producer Will Packer, the nighttime antics get wild, and that’s when the supernatural twist comes into play.
While Meyers’ premise involved cross-dressing and accidental electrocution, Ali simply drinks some spiked tea from an eccentric fortune teller (Erykah Badu, clearly having a blast). A few drunken antics later, Ali wakes up in a hospital, where suddenly every man’s inner monologue echoes in her head. This includes her neurotic gay assistant Brandon (Josh Brenner, settling into a dopey supporting role in between “Silicon Valley” stints), who gives the movie its first belly laugh when he shrieks at the revelation that Ali knows what he’s thinking — first, out loud, and then again to himself, which makes Ali recoil twice over.
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“What Men Want” wastes little time establishing Ali’s new power or her realization that it will further her professional goals by exploiting the men around her. The developments unfold with such schematic precision the movie may as well be reverse-engineered for its trailer.
Yet Henson throws herself into the role with such wacky exuberance she frequently elevates the half-baked material. Ali’s self-centered determination comes out in her unruly behavior, which leads to flashes of inspired slapstick. Whereas “What Women Want” found Mel Gibson waltzing around an empty apartment to the tune of Frank Sinatra, Ali gets blackout drunk, takes Will home, and rides him clumsily until she collapses asleep by his side, leaving her baffled bedmate to look over in shock. (Their second go-round, which draws on a similar scene in the original, works out better for both; it’s another comic highlight, for different reasons.)
Nevertheless, Adam Shankman’s workmanlike direction guides the movie through a mixed bag of punchlines, as complications rise to an unwieldy degree. Once Ali comes to term with her powers, “What Men Want” settles into a series of pedestrian developments that seem lifted from a more straightforward sports comedy.
Keen on winning over Jamal for the firm, she works overtime to charm his demanding manager and doting dad (a garrulous Tracy Morgan, who doesn’t even try to play fictional characters anymore); to convince him that she leads a well-balanced life, she pretends to have a healthy marriage to Will, who thinks they’re just going steady. (Her decision not to clue him into the ruse is one of the movie’s many implausible leaps.) Meanwhile, her abilities provide her with troubling insight into her best friends’ relationship problems, and the movie careens between these circumstances as if spinning a story wheel with reckless abandon.
While it invites fond memories, “What Women Want” isn’t above reproach (its crimes include an appalling racist caricature and a one-note floozy played by Merisa Tomei), but Meyers excelled at keeping the focus on the way Gibson’s character exploited his newfound power while gaining insight into the opposite sex. “What Men Want,” by contrast, sticks to a literal-minded trajectory. Ali’s story involves little more than the usual rom-com complications of relationship woes, friendship betrayals, and various efforts to clean up the messes.
The clunky third act involves a half-hour of bow-tying, and it arrives at the end of a cluttered path. Modern studio comedies frequently ignore clarity in lieu of keeping a general audience enthralled from moment to moment. Over two hours, “What Men Want” wastes minutes of screen time with distracting cameos from the likes of Shaq and Karl-Anthony Towns, an underdeveloped subplot featuring Pete Davidson as a closeted co-worker, and meandering banter surrounding Ali’s complicated rivalries with her peers (Max Greenfield and Jason Jones, interchangeable). It’s a movie designed for watchability rather than cohesion and, no matter its progressive aims, still suffers from the same old problems.
However, “What Men Want” makes desperate stabs at relevance that ought to resonate at the multiplex. It’s less movie than pop-culture mirror: Ali’s boss bemoans the prospects of getting “crucified by these MeToo-ers,” and the story is bookended with references to “locker-room talk” and an empowering declaration that “I’m with her.” It channels the various traumas of modern American society into a galvanizing mission statement. The ideas don’t cut that deep, but like its psychic protagonist, this movie knows exactly what its audience wants.
Paramount releases “What Men Want” in theaters on February 8.