A bit sexist even back in the comparatively mild political climate of the year 2000, What Women Want simply could not be made today. It’s a lot safer out there for a gender-flipped version, in which a woman is granted the power to hear men’s thoughts rather than vice versa. The necessary comedic stereotyping lands a bit easier when it’s teasing men who are obsessed with sex and sport than teasing women’s obsessions with … well, we won’t go there. Thankfully, as a society, we’re trying to get past reducing women to the sum of a bunch of really old-fashioned ideas about what makes them tick.
The film What Men Want, though, still feels pretty old-fashioned, as if it were made only a few years after that Mel Gibson vehicle rather than nearly 20. Its gender notions are still a bit retrograde, though perhaps that’s inevitable in any film designed to accentuate the differences between men and women in the broadest possible terms. Maybe something as broad as this really doesn’t have a place in 2019, though to its credit, the film does get less broad after a really rough beginning. It ultimately rounds out into something very predictable and conventional, but satisfying enough not to squander its charming cast.
Instead of Gibson granted extra sensory perception after – some kind of electrical mishap in the bathroom, was it? – it’s Taraji P. Henson who acquires this useful but burdensome power in Adam Shankman’s film. Henson’s Ali is a sports agent who might have walked straight out of Jerry Maguire’s agency, which is another way this film feels 20 years old. She works in a boys’ club full of douchebags, and as such she just can’t make partner, no matter how many high-profile clients she signs. However, maybe there’s something more to it than just gender bias. Even Ali’s girlfriends acknowledge she has trouble relating to men and figuring out what they want/need, and a lot of her prospective clients are of the male persuasion.
It’s nothing that a kooky psychic with a magical tea, followed by a blow to the head, can’t fix. Ali is at a hen’s night when the psychic tries both psychological and herbal remedies to her problem, but it isn’t until she’s knocked unconscious on the dance floor that her power really kicks in. The next morning in the hospital she can hear the male doctor’s private thoughts about his on-the-job cocaine use, and Ali soon realises she’s in trouble. However, what appears to be a curse may actually be a benefit, if Ali can use her knowledge of what men are thinking to woo the future #1 pick in the NBA draft. Not to mention his obstinate father.
But darn it if Henson, after her own rough beginning to the film, doesn’t just pull this thing along by sheer force of will. Her incredible charisma and chemistry with her romantic interest, played by the impossibly handsome Aldis Hodge, keeps your smile from drooping too often. Good casting can take a movie far, and this film benefits from some other smart choices in that regard, including Tracy Morgan as the father of the coveted basketball prodigy, who has legally changed his name to Joe Dolla in order to trademark it for branding purposes. Morgan feels like he was made for this concept, as his character on 30 Rock was always known for his savant-like, stream-of-consciousness lines of dialogue. This role cuts out the middle man of Morgan’s mouth, allowing us to peer directly into that loopy consciousness – though both his spoken and unspoken lines of dialogue are pretty funny.
One way the film has tried to make itself more modern is by giving Ali a gay male assistant, Silicon Valley’s Josh Brener. He’s the only one who knows about Ali’s power and makes a useful conspirator in that regard. Brener’s comic timing is also really strong, and the script gives him the funny ability to telepathically provide Ali certain information she needs, not to mention intentionally hide his thoughts from her by forcing himself to think of his favourite dessert recipe. There’s no similar character in the 2000 version, and this makes for one of the few useful updates of that script.
In general, though, this is a pretty obvious and disposable piece of popular entertainment, nothing that’s really going to advance the discussion of gender politics, but neither will it offend that discussion. What Men Want flirts with genuinely provocative material, as when Ali and her boss have a frank exchange about the perils of race- or gender-based discrimination in the #MeToo era, but it quickly scrambles away from those topics and back to a more tepid middle ground. Safe is probably not what we’d want from a movie like What Men Want, but it’s probably the only thing it was ever likely to be.