'What Men Want': Film Review

Good enough.

Taraji P. Henson stars as a formidable sports agent who attempts to achieve her career goals with the help of mysterious psychic powers in Adam Shankman’s updated workplace comedy.

One of the first things to know about What Men Want is that it requires little familiarity with its predecessor, Nancy Meyers’ 2000 Mel Gibson starrer What Women Want. Although the filmmakers of the update name-check screenwriters Cathy Yuspa and Josh Goldsmith in this feature “inspired by” Meyers’ movie, they pretty much dispense with most of the details from the original. Some would say that’s a good thing, but more importantly it’s simply practical, giving scripters Tina Gordon, Peter Huyck and Alex Gregory room to run without being held back by the trappings of the script’s source material.

Certainly the introduction of Taraji P. Henson’s protagonist refreshingly realigns a by-now classic narrative conceit, along with the Atlanta setting within the world of professional sports. Adam Shankman’s reenvisioning nonetheless remains a high-concept comedy that rarely contradicts genre standards or the formulaic feel-good rulebook that it draws from. So in the end, it’s a rather conventional feature that satisfies expectations rather than challenging them. As a result, this adaptation looks unlikely to stir the passionate devotion that could confirm it as first-rate comedy material, although it will doubtless make another reliable library title for Paramount.

Life wouldn’t seem so bad if you’re a top sports agent in a city like Atlanta that takes its pro teams super seriously. But for Ali Davis (Henson), who’s had to struggle mightily just to pull together a lineup of top female Olympians for Summit Worldwide Management’s roster, earning professional respect is more a matter of fairness. As the company’s only senior female agent, she’s worked harder than her male counterparts to bring in the clients and now expects to be rewarded. Seeing as she hasn't signed any male athletes from the big three NFL, MLB or NBA leagues, Summit CEO Nick Ivers (Brian Bosworth) deems Ali unworthy, instead conferring the company’s newest partnership on her younger colleague Eddie (Chris Witaske). Realizing that she’ll never be able to compete with the male partners until she can beat them at their own game, Ali announces her intention to sign leading NBA draft pick Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie), a player typically tantalizingly beyond her reach.

Ali’s very public professional humiliation takes place at a senior management meeting in a scene that encapsulates many of the movie’s intersecting themes of gender, race and power politics. The issues that Ali faces are a complex blend of personal and social challenges that gain additional significance in a high-pressure industry dominated by men dealing in multi-million dollar contracts, bonuses and endorsement deals. Her inability to advance therefore becomes an unflattering measure of her self-worth, which she’s not accustomed to having questioned as the daughter of a pro boxer (Richard Roundtree) who named her after a sports legend.

“You don’t connect well with men,” Nick mansplains to Ali once she’s had a chance to absorb her disappointment, an observation that does not go down well with her. At a bachelorette party later for best friend Mari (Tamala Jones), a surprise tarot reading by psychic Sister (Erykah Badu) puts a new spin on Ali’s relationships with men, but it’s the “Haitian” herbal tea that really shifts her perspective. Suddenly ecstatic despite her work worries, Ali is soon leading the girls out on the dance floor during a round of late-night clubbing that quickly concludes when she takes a fall and cracks her head.

Waking up in a hospital ER, Ali experiences severe disorientation when she realizes that whether because of Sister’s suspicious tea or her minor contusion, she can now somehow inexplicably hear men’s thoughts. Her immediate reaction is “Make it stop!” as she endures a dizzying onslaught of TMI moments, overhearing all manner of crude sexual fantasies, observations about male bodily functions and inane preoccupations. It’s not long, however, before Ali sees the advantage of her newfound power to track her male colleagues’ every mental move. In the romance department, things get a bit more complicated, as she attempts to navigate a new relationship with widowed single dad Will (Aldis Hodge), who’s as forthright as he is unsuspecting about her unusual abilities.

Although Ali can hear men’s thoughts, she can’t actually read their minds and consequently misses out on the crucial motivations that inform their behavior. She’s really just picking up the surface signals, and although they help her gain the upper hand in contract negotiations with Jamal’s dad, Joe “Dolla” Barry (Tracy Morgan), serious misunderstandings are sure to result as she tries to decide whether to lower her standards far enough to compete with her male rivals.

With this classic head-versus-heart conflict, the screenwriters set Ali up for some hard choices, then end up giving her pretty much everything she wants in an affirmation that life lessons can pay off if truly taken to heart. It’s all a bit much to take, since without her unusual talent she’s practically tone-deaf when it comes to understanding men, but after all, Ali’s journey is more wish-fulfillment fantasy than realistic self-assessment anyway.

Henson evinces a tremendously humorous, and human, capacity for grasping Ali’s personal desperation and professional determination as she forges them into a semi-coherent strategy for success. She’s not at all afraid to suffer the inevitable humiliations Ali must face to advance her career and expand her romantic horizons, even when it means that plot developments are likely to take on a slapstick-silly spin.

Much of that craziness is provided courtesy of over-the-top performances from Morgan as the get-rich entrepreneur exploiting his son’s success and Badu as the wannabe psychic who’s prepared to settle for the insights provided by psychotropic substances rather than anything like actual enlightenment. Hodge offers Will’s sincerity as the counterweight to Ali’s ambition, but whether it will be enough to keep her grounded depends on if she can heed her own moral compass.

Shankman keeps the pacing ticking along like clockwork, with the accumulation of often hilarious incidents almost threatening to overwhelm the impressively individualized characterizations, until things come together in a predictably satisfying conclusion.

Production companies: Paramount Players, Will Packer Productions
Distributor: Paramount
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Aldis Hodge, Tracy Morgan, Josh Brener, Erykah Badu, Richard Roundtree, Wendi McLendon Covey, Tamala Jones, Phoebe Robinson, Max Greenfield, Shane Paul McGhie, Jason Jones, Chris Witaske, Brian Bosworth, Kellan Lutz, Auston Jon Moore
Director: Adam Shankman
Screenwriters: Tina Gordon, Peter Huyck, Alex Gregory
Producers: Will Packer, James Lopez
Executive producers: Taraji P. Henson, Amy Sayres, Adam Shankman, Matt Williams,
David McFadzean, Dete Meserve
Director of photography: Jim Denault
Production designer: Mark Hutman
Costume designer: Sekinah Brown
Editor: Emma E. Hickox
Music: Brian Tyler

Rated R, 117 minutes