This time last year wasn’t great for Taraji P. Henson’s filmography. Proud Mary was a flop, and I suffered for Pajiba through the very awful Acrimony, which was low even by Tyler Perry standards. Neither film took advantage of Henson’s unique blend of brassy, no-nonsense practicality and wide-eyed vulnerability, but What Men Want succeeds because of it.
This remake of the 2000 Mel Gibson vehicle What Women Want is similarly broad, and interestingly, each film was directed by a member of the other gender: The Gibson film was directed by the famed Nancy Meyers, while Henson’s is from Adam Shankman (of the Step Up franchise). And there are other tweaks, too: While Gibson in the first film often stole women’s ideas and presented them as his own at work, Henson instead anticipates what men are saying about her and uses their stereotypes to her advantage. The film is constantly acknowledging common gender-driven microaggressions in the workplace, the way men will treat women as props in meetings instead of partners, and how Henson’s character navigates those situations is where the movie derives most of its humor.
That twist makes What Men Want, while often not particularly nuanced in its exploration of what men actually want, more in tune with what women go through at work, on dates, in their personal and professional and romantic relationships. And Tina Gordon’s work on the script here gives me even more hope for the upcoming Regina Hall/Issa Rae/Marsai Martin film Little, which Gordon also co-wrote and will direct.
What Men Want is set in Atlanta, where sports agent Ali Davis (Henson) has a large roster of clients, but is looked down upon at her firm because she doesn’t have anyone from the NFL, NBA, or MLB. She has Olympic athletes and championship winners (Lisa Leslie makes a cameo!), but when she’s denied a promotion to partner, the men in charge explain—without acknowledging that their consideration of these athletes as second-class is quite sexist—that it’s because she’s a woman repping other women. “You don’t connect well with men … just stay in your lane,” her boss says.
Determined to move up the ladder, Ali vows to do everything in her power to sign Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie), the upcoming first round overall pick in the NBA Draft. But Barry has baggage in the form of his father, the LaVar Ball-like Joe Dolla (Tracy Morgan), who fancies himself the expert on all things related to his son. He determines everything he eats. He sets his daily schedule. And he doesn’t see the benefit of signing with an agency when he can just do everything for Jamal—what can Ali really offer him?
That becomes clearer to figure out when, after drinking some mysterious tea (from Haiti, because this movie does still traffic in voodoo stereotypes) and smashing her head while dancing (to 2 Live Crew’s “Hoochie Mama,” naturally), Ali gains the ability to read men’s minds, to hear their every thought. Most of them are disgusting—men objectifying women, thinking things like “Anal isn’t cheating”—but Ali realizes that she can also pick up on what the Barrys are thinking. And so she tailors her behavior accordingly, focusing only on signing them as clients—not considering who she might offend or hurt along the way.
So much of What Men Want is focused on Henson, and rightfully so. She dominates scenes with Jason Jones and Max Greenfield, she has good chemistry with her nebbish assistant, played by Josh Brener, and she’s an effective straight woman to Morgan’s outlandishness as Joe Dolla (how she manages to keep a calm face while Morgan lists the ingredients in his son’s smoothies, from kale to chia seeds to cherries to duck sauce, I don’t know!) and to Erykah Badu as a weed-dealing psychic who deals an Uno card while doing a tarot reading.
And although the movie sidesteps some issues about male and female relationship dynamics by making Ali’s love interest Will (Aldis Hodge) a fairly flawless single dad, the script effectively conveys how the frustrations of living in a patriarchal society have turned Ali into someone who cares first and foremost about herself. She rides Will to her own sexual completion; who cares if he orgasms? She’s already done! As the sole woman in a poker game against coworkers and NBA figures like Mark Cuban, Shaquille O’Neal, and Grant Hill, she has to consider whether she should let Joe Dolla win so she doesn’t come off as too much of a ball-busting bitch. And even with her female friends, she has to decide how much of herself to share. They’re all in relationships; should she criticize their partners? Or will they judge her for not being as successful in love as they are?
This isn’t to say that What Men Want is, like, a great movie. There’s not much detail provided regarding what the responsibilities of an agent actually are. You can guess that a lie Ali tells will later blow up in her face, jeopardizing her happiness. You’re not surprised when the movie uses some gay-panic jokes during a heterosexual wedding ceremony in a church, or when a dude who is into bondage play is used for laughs. And the fact that a homosexual love story in the film includes two straight actors isn’t ideal. All of these are knocks against it. But What Men Want is, like Ocean’s 8 was last year, a familiar story finally told from a female perspective, and one that allows its protagonist to be just as ambitious as a man would be, and one that considers how members of the opposite gender work against that ambition. Movies about women shouldn’t only be retreads of male stories, but Henson’s performance and Gordon’s script make What Men Want nuanced enough to resonate with female viewers who will recognize their own battles against our patriarchal society onscreen.
Plus, Pete Davidson dabs during a climactic moment, and it’s cute, and I laughed. I WILL NOT APOLOGIZE.
Header Image Source: YouTube/What Men Want