Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
WHAT MEN WANT
Rated PG-13, 117 minutes
Directed by: Adam Shankman
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Aldis Hodge, Josh Brener, Erykah Badu, Richard Roundtree, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Tamala Jones, Phoebe Robinson, Max Greenfield, Brian Bosworth, Kellan Lutz and Tracy Morgan
Director Nancy Meyers’ WHAT WOMEN WANT has been gender-swapped to suit a new, even worse decade filled with similar sexist sentiments in director Adam Shankman’s WHAT MEN WANT. This remake retains the same bone structure of the original, showing what happens when a protagonist gains the superpower to hear the innermost thoughts of the opposite sex, but it’s been given a bad facelift. Refashioning the premise into a bawdy, broad comedy instead of a pure romcom romp is just the first in a long line of missteps. With frequent mentions of SEO-friendly topics like male privilege, the #MeToo movement and “locker room talk,” its renewed identity captures a specific moment in time rather than being timeless.
Ali Davis (Taraji P. Henson), pronounced “Ah-lee,” is the sole female sports agent at Summit Worldwide Management. She’s a dedicated fighter for her clients, working round the clock to ensure their happiness. Too bad she forgot about her own. Her career comes first, which doesn’t leave much room for spending time with her girlfriends (Tamala Jones, Wendi McLendon-Covey, and Phoebe Robinson), or sustaining a romantic relationship. Her sole focus is on making partner at the firm, busting through the glass ceiling in this boys’ club. Even her long-suffering assistant Brandon (Josh Brener) is rooting for her.
Ali’s hopes to be the greatest are soon dashed when she’s passed over for the coveted position, simply because her boss (Brian Bosworth) hired her to be the company’s “two-fer” (something that’s better explained on 30 ROCK than in this movie). Not only is she given the advice to “stay in her lane,” she’s told that she’s “not good with men.” But just when she’s ready to roll with the punches and try to sign NBA all-star Jamal Berry (Shane Paul McGhie), her world gets flipped upside down. An eccentric psychic/ pot dealer (Erykah Badu) asks her to drink an ecstasy-laced tea to help gain clarity on her troubles. That combined with a minor-concussion makes the magical recipe for her to develop the ability to read men’s minds. And she can’t go anywhere without being assaulted by their every little thought – which, when you think about it, is kinda like being on Twitter. Amirite, ladies?!
How Ali learns and leans into harnessing her newfound powers is strikingly different than the original, perhaps in an effort to set this film apart. Instead of Ali figuring out that she can use this to her business advantage, someone else tells her. In the original, Nick (Mel Gibson) figures this out himself – it’s a character-motivated action, so when the inevitable third-act redemption occurs, it feels earned. Here, Ali’s third act apology tour never feels remotely satisfactory, as the set-up is a shrug. Ali might utilize her talent to have a hot elevator make-out session with Captain Fucktastic (Kellan Lutz), in a similar fashion as Nick took advantage of desperate barista Lola (Marisa Tomei) in this film’s predecessor. However, Shankman and screenwriters Tina Gordon, Peter Huyck and Alex Gregory split up that concept’s comedic momentum, applying it to Ali’s romantic interest Will (Aldis Hodge), where she reads his mind for a better sexual experience. The effect doesn’t function nearly as well.
Giving the original material a new signature sheen doesn’t help matters either. The filmmakers blessedly do away with the original’s storyline of a man actively tanking a woman’s career. Yet what’s in its place isn’t great. The filmmakers build in romcom genre trappings of a “you lied to me” moment, which Meyers’ movie avoided and subverted. Adding in expected raunchy gags (like the used condom that gets stuck on Ali’s blazer, or Captain Fucktastic’s S&M outfit) and predictable, over-the-top set pieces (like the church fight at a wedding) distracts from the heart that’s included dealing with father-child relationships (Ali with her father and Will with his young cute-as-a-button son) and, more importantly, Ali’s own character-driven motives.
Pacing is hugely problematic as Shankman fails to find a good rhythm to the building comedic shenanigans. They try to let Tracy Morgan, who plays Jamal’s controlling father/ manager, do his thing, but they give him too much slack where it’s not funny. The way in which Ali realizes she can hear men’s thoughts is ham-handed not just in a narrative sense, but also a visual one. The choppy edits cut away before the nature of the reveal can even land with the audience. It’s rushed through. Most often, it’s Henson’s perfect comedic timing and physical comedy chops that save scenes where her character is frazzled or flipping out. Other sequences, like the poker game Ali crashes, linger and drag. There are awkward silences between male players’ lines as if they’ve paused for laughter on set. This is also the cameopalooza portion of the film, where people like Mark Cuban and Shaq show up.
Perhaps the worst offender is the initial scene between Henson and Badu, which serves to break us early on. For what should’ve been a simple two-shot set-up, Shankman and his crew shoot all angles (high, low, medium) with little to no attention to the actors’ positions within the frame. He’s got no interest in engaging with this visual medium. He and editor Emma E. Hickox cut every few seconds in order to manufacture a snappy sense of energy and comedy. But despite the actors’ performances in the sequence which are great, the spark never ignites. At least Badu really tries to sell it. God bless her for being fully committed to the bit.
Unfortunately, whatever empowerment WHAT MEN WANT admirably hopes to inspire is completely buried under a heavy swath of rote qualities. These are real issues faced by women in the workplace, yet the cinematic megaphone used to blast the message is busted.
WHAT MEN WANT opens on February 8.