We used to think Mel Gibson was sexist in the socially acceptable ladies’ man/bad boy way, which made him perfectly cast in the 2000 Nancy Meyers-directed comedy What Women Want. Since then, Gibson has said and done horrid things, but been granted an astonishing second chance because terrible men will always eventually be fine in Hollywood. So you’re probably not surprised to hear there’s a What Women Want remake in the works. But hey! Good news: It’s not starring Gibson and will be gender-swapped. So maybe it won’t promote tired sexist tropes about women!?
Sounds like not.
In What Women Want, the hero’s problem was that he was a chauvinistic ad-man who thought of women predominantly as sex objects to sell beer. So he was failing hard at winning over contracts with female brands. Then, he used his special powers to eavesdrop on unsuspecting women to understand them or steal their ideas, and through this, he realized women are people too.
In the remake, THR reports What Men Want will be a Tarji P. Henson vehicle, where she plays “a female sports agent who has been constantly boxed out by her male colleagues. When she gains the power to hear men’s thoughts, she is able to shift the paradigm to her advantage as she races to sign the NBA’s next superstar.”
So, the setting of sports agency places Henson’s character in a boys’ club, which makes sense. And phrases like “boxed out” and “shift the paradigm” are signals that maybe this won’t be a movie that suggests women just don’t get sports the way men do. And maybe we won’t see Henson using her power to steal her co-workers’ ideas, and thereby suggest a woman could never get ahead on her own in a sports-related field. MAYBE!
The original’s protagonist was a swaggering anti-hero, who was basically a sexy dinosaur with old-school machismo and ideals. What Women Want was actually poking fun at the Gibson persona by making him shave his legs and actually get in touch with empathy and vulnerability. But nothing about What Men Wants logline suggests Henson will be an anti-heroine with flaws that need addressing. And let’s face it, Hollywood is still very uncomfortable with centering projects on “unlikeable” female characters. So assume this is more a Working Girl role, where she’s fighting—however she can—to make up the rungs on the ladder that her male co-workers got through boys’ club privilege. And maybe that’ll be fresh and entertaining. I’d like to think Henson wouldn’t sign on to a script that’d be less fun and thoughtful (Blockers) and more regressive and dumb (I Feel Pretty). But there are a few other reasons I’m less than hopeful for What Men Want.
First off, the project was announced last November with news Paramount was fast-tracking it for a January 2019 release. Often, “fast-tracking” is code for “we’ve got a concept and a star, so let’s rush a script and get this shot!” That’s not promising, especially since that announcement, as well as the latest, heralding the casting of Wendi McLendon-Covey, doesn’t mention who is writing this thing.
And as for who’s directing, it’s not queen of female-fronted comedy Nancy Meyers. It’s not her daughter Hallie Meyers-Shyer, who helmed Home Again, which warmly followed in her mother’s charming rom-com footsteps. It’s not Amy Heckerling (Look Who’s Talking, Clueless, I Could Never Be Your Woman). It’s not a woman at all. It’s Adam Shankman who’s directed the sloppy musical Rock of Ages, the movie Vin Diesel wishes you’d forget about The Pacifier, and the Jennifer Lopez/Matthew McConaughey rom-com The Wedding Planner. Which is all not to say Shankman is a bad director. But his hiring suggests What Men Want will be a poorly thought-out knockoff that could come off as especially clueless in the Me Too era.
At least if we knew who the writer was we might be able to find a reason for optimism. If it were a woman, that’d be a good sign. What’s Aline Brosh McKenna, Helen Fielding, or Tess Morris up to? But also, we’d accept if it were a male writer who’s shown a capacity for creating complex and funny female characters. Like The Proposal’s Peter Chiarelli or Richard Curtis. Hell, even a team-up would be great. After all, What Women Want was written by Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa. Maybe there’s nothing sinister about Paramount hiding who’s writing this thing. But there’s nothing good about it either.
Look, What Women Want was a product of its time, and if you’re going to remake it successfully you need to do so shaping it as a product of ours, addressing the gender gap in treatment at the workplace while keeping things light enough to be funny. It’s a tricky needle to thread. As it is, What Men Want sounds like a hasty rehash that’s trying to use Henson’s star power and a plucky message of empowerment to attract audiences. But What Men Want better give us something worthy of our time and Henson’s.
And please resist the urge to give Gibson a cameo.