For the past few weeks, Los Angeles has been dotted with jewel-colored billboards for What Men Want, a gender-swapped remake of the 2000 Nancy Meyers film that starred someone whose name I just can’t seem to think of at the moment.
These billboards advertise the film’s stars, Taraji P. Henson and Tracy Morgan, and feature the tagline: “She can read men’s thoughts. Let the games begin.”
Is that even a tagline? It’s more of just… the premise of the film, and then the promise of a movie that will engage with that premise through (hopefully fun) games. What a weirdly straightforward declaration of what this movie is about, I’ve thought every time I’ve driven down Fairfax Avenue lately.
It turns out, however, that those bizarrely matter-of-fact posters are, intentionally or not, the perfect representation of What Men Want. The movie offers no twists or surprises about its premise. It delivers exactly what you expect, in exactly the way you expect. If you’re looking to save some cash, it might be worth it to just watch the trailer five times in a row and call it a night.
Though neither its plot nor its jokes elevate What Men Want above made-for-TV fare, the movie benefits from slick direction by Adam Shankman and the charisma of Henson, who gamely makes cartoony gags somehow not gag-worthy.
Henson stars as Ali, a sports agent who works hard and lets everything else in her life fall by the wayside. (It’s hard not to let John Mulaney’s voice pop into your head here: “She’s a busy businesswoman who only likes business.”) After she’s passed over for a promotion at her boys’ club of an office, she’s told that she has trouble connecting with men (we’re going to come back to this). Later that night, at a friend’s bachelorette party, a drug-laced tea from a psychic and a knock on the head grant Ali the ability to hear men’s thoughts. (Let the games begin.)
Like it arrived in a time capsule from 2006, the film’s approach to gender dynamics is about the same as a beer commercial where a lazy husband on the couch can’t watch football in peace because his wife keeps trying to take him antiquing. Whereas this movie could easily have been fresh and nuanced — and funnier! Think how surprising and funny it was when 21 Jump Street revealed that all the cool kids nowadays are into environmentalism and wearing both their backpack straps — it resorts instead to tropes as lazy as that beer-wanting couch husband. Even a tiny role from boyfriend-to-the-stars Pete Davidson can’t make this movie feel like it belongs in 2019.
Contrary to what you might expect from the posters, Henson’s love interest is not Tracy Morgan; he plays the wildcard father of a basketball prodigy Ali is trying to sign. (As a friend of mine pointed out, having Morgan in a movie about the miracle of being able to read men’s thoughts is a little redundant. No one has ever accused a Tracy Morgan character of being difficult to read. Has there ever been someone more willing to verbalize exactly what’s on his mind?)
Henson’s love interest is handsome bartender and single father named Will (Aldis Hodge), who, in a plot twist unrelated to mind-reading, she has to pretend is her husband. That’s another baffling element of this movie: You could remove the entire mind-reading plotline and have a pretty full, thematically consistent movie left.
I left the film not any more certain about what men want (I guess for women to let them win at poker?) but absolutely positive about what I want: better vehicles for Taraji P. Henson. C+
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