Ghostbusters. Ocean’s 8. And now What Men Want. The gender-flipped blockbuster is the latest trend in Hollywood’s (slow, delayed, much-needed) shift towards some semblance of parity, but the flick marks the first time the treatment has been applied to a romantic comedy.
The original What Women Want, directed by Nancy Meyers, is an exercise in things-that-used-to-be-really-popular-but-now-seem-really-questionable — the flick starred Mel Gibson (check) as a womanizing advertising executive (check) with a daughter he barely sees (check), who uses his newfound ability to hear women’s inner thoughts to trick his boss into falling in love with him (check).
[This is the part where we decline to editorialize on the plot, but leave you, reader, to develop your own opinion about how the film holds up.]
The revamped What Men Want, in theaters now, stars Taraji P. Henson as a successful sports agent who struggles for fair treatment in her male-dominated office. After being passed over for a promotion that is very obviously her due, she uses her newfound ability to hear men’s thoughts to finally push past the last layer of prejudice at work. She mind-reads her boss, the overbearing father of a potential signee (played by Tracy Morgan who, despite what the movie’s billboards may lead you to believe, is not Henson’s love interest), and she mind-reads the hot single-father bartender she’s dating. We probably don’t need to add that this version was written by a woman.
The rom-com is Henson’s platform more than anything, and the actress tells EW she was so confident in the premise that she agreed to the role before a script even existed. She was approached for the gig by Brian Robbins, then-president of Paramount Pictures, because he remembered her from a very early audition.
“I auditioned for Norbit years ago and he really liked me,” explains Henson. “Thandie Newton ended up getting it and that was her blessing, but 20 years later he remembered me and was like: her.”
Henson worked with the studio as they started on the script (penned by Drumline’s Tina Gordon) and had a few provisions as they attempted to gender-flip the classic rom-com. To start: Even though the conceit rested on poking fun at the (occasionally absurd or disturbing) inner thoughts of men, there was to be no male-bashing; she wanted them to feel comfortable seeing the movie.
“I also didn’t want her to find her success through a man,” she says. “I’m always fighting that in scripts, even on Empire. Lucius can’t come back that soon, that’s not the message I’m trying to send to women.”
Gordon, who directs Issa Rae and Regina Hall in this spring’s Little, heard the refrain loud and clear. She was more interested in exploring gender roles, anyway. The writer tells EW that as she was working on the film, one of her close friends found himself a single father and described the jarring moment when the two began talking about topics they had never broached before.
“Everything’s copy, unfortunately, for writers, but it was a great moment for me to sort of mirror back the places in my own life that could be more whole,” explains Gordon. “And to look at a man not necessarily because of what he’s saying, but how he’s stepping up in a way that I as a woman have not — in my own life.”
That dynamic also gave her the beginnings of the relationship between Ali (Henson’s character) and Will, the love interest. As Ali is working to better her standing at the agency, Will — by way of his relationship with his son — pushes her to think about how she relates to friends and family and, according to Gordon, introduces Ali to the idea of sharing.
Every rom-com has a central gimmick — the bet in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, the newspaper article in 27 Dresses, or the secret plot to destroy Kimmy in My Best Friend’s Wedding — and in What Men Want the gimmick is, of course, Henson’s ability to read men’s inner thoughts. In the original 2000 version, those thoughts were informed by the women who worked on the film, but the task of parsing out secret male musings proved much more difficult for Gordon. She learned that asking the men around her to tell her their thoughts was much less effective than simply observing their behavior and drawing her own conclusions.
No romantic comedy is exactly 50/50 — movies will inevitably lean one way or the other and there are many moments in which What Men Want leans very heavily into comedy. Will Packer, who brought audiences Girls Trip, served as producer, and it’s easy to see the similarities in the R-rated films. Henson doesn’t usually do raunchy comedy and she insisted to Packer during pre-production that everybody else in the cast be strong comedic actors.
“I want them to make me rise, I don’t want to drive all of the scenes,” she says. “And thank God, everyone was very funny. Especially Tracy Morgan. You gotta be ready for him. Woo hoo hoo! He’s always gonna throw you something.”
Henson leaned all the way in to the R-rating, using language and acting out sex scenes that audiences would never imagine seeing in Hidden Figures or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. And yes, she quite well enjoyed it.
“There’s a scene with the girls where I come in frustrated, and I remember I was playing with this dildo,” she says, laughing. “I’m squeezing the balls and you see the little sperm floating around. That wasn’t scripted, I just sat down and started using it in the scene. I love working with [director] Adam [Shankman] in a safe environment because I’m uninhibited.”
As a romantic comedy in a post-#MeToo world, What Men Want is, naturally, going to evoke discussions about all the ways in which it’s different from a traditional rom-com. The most obvious is what Henson just explained: The studio flicks of the early-aughts would never deign to put female leads in such compromising positions as dildo-handling (What Men Want can surely thank Bridesmaids for paving the way there).
For Tina Gordon’s part, she believes that, while the general conceit of two people exploring a relationship together has remained constant in romantic comedies, the expectations around that have started to change. As a self-professed non-expert in the world of romance [Ed note: who is an expert, really?], she prefers to explore the spark between two characters as opposed to their pursuit of a happy ending.
Henson is quick to rattle off a list of the reasons she prefers a rom-com in the style of What Men Want. They include the inclusion of a single father (“It’s the element I hold dear to my heart”), the arc of her character fighting for what she believes, and the portrayal of the male-dominated agency culture (“It’s the same struggle my agent has at her agency”) that mirrors her own Hollywood experience.
“I’ve been the only woman in a cast before,” says the actress. “When you’re in that situation you’re always fighting for your voice to be heard, you’re getting drowned out by all this testosterone. But they picked the right one because I’m a fighter.”
So what’s next for rom-coms? The level of the film’s box office success will probably dictate, at least in part, what kind of films are greenlit in the future. Gordon has a few ideas up her sleeve, waiting for the moment the industry makes the change complete.
“Would I love to write a movie where they don’t get together at the end? Yes, I would,” says the screenwriter. “It doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen anytime soon. Why I can’t mirror my own romantic life, I don’t know. For now, I’ll push the limits, but I don’t know how to get out of the ‘…and they lived happily ever after.’”
While the industry watches and waits, Henson has the most Taraji of inspirational calls-to-action for rom-com watchers.
“We can’t put our happiness on other people,” she says. “That’s ours, that’s on us, that’s for me, that’s self-work. It doesn’t happen through someone else.”
Every day until Valentine’s Day, Entertainment Weekly is celebrating our special romantic comedy-themed Untold Stories issue. Check out all of our behind-the-scenes tidbits, reunions, and oral histories — and follow #LoveEWstyle on Twitter and Instagram.