WHAT MEN WANT stretch Feature

To put it all up front, I never liked WHAT WOMEN WANT, the film that WHAT MEN WANT is theoretically remaking. Lots found it a gentle crowd-pleaser and were utterly charmed by a pre-exposed to be a miserable racist and anti-Semite Mel Gibson. For me, however, it was an exercise in bog standard stereotyping of men and women dressed up as a woke (for the time) romantic comedy.

What I’m saying is that it was bad. Very bad.

So, I went into WHAT MEN WANT with the lowest of low expectations.

WHAT MEN WANT: Poker Game
Tracy Morgan, Chris Witaske, Jason Jones, Mark Cuban, and Taraji P. Henson do their best to maintain their poker faces in WHAT MEN WANT. Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

The Idea Behind WHAT MEN WANT

Ali Davis (Taraji P. Henson) anticipates making partner at the almost entirely male sports agent firm she works at, but her boss Nick Ivers (Brian “Stone Cold” Bosworth) has other plans. Convinced sexism has caused her to get passed over again, she screams insults at her coworkers, pledges to sign Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie) before any of them do, and leaves early to go spar with her father Skip (Richard Roundtree).

Even after a one-night stand with the bartender and single father Will, she is still reeling so badly she botches her first encounter with Barry and his eccentric father Joe Dolla (Tracy Morgan). Thus, by the time she arrives at her friend Mari (Tamala Jones), Ali is good and ready to get a little sideways. Enter Sister (Erykah Badu) an apparent psychic with a gift for theatrics and a love for drugs. A consultation with Sister, a cup of some Hattian tea, and a head injury later, Ali can hear men’s thoughts.

After a brief freakout, Ali is ready to use her powers to sign the future star, secure the man, and snag the partnership she deserved in the first place. Will it happen or will she ruin her life along the way and learn a lesson? Jeez, I just don’t know.

WHAT MEN WANT: Ali, Olivia, Ciarra, Mari
Taraji B. Henson, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Phoebe Robinson, and Tamala Jones marvel at it all in WHAT MEN WANT. Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Writing WHAT MEN WANT

Tina Gordon, Peter Huyck, and Alex Gregory, writing from a story by Tina Gordon and Jas Waters, have a script here that you can probably predict every beat of by about 20 minutes in.

The good news is that it is not nearly as odious as the script to WHAT WOMEN WANT that, as I noted above, just went straight for stereotypes and skipped all that character development nonsense. The bad news is it introduces race into the equation. While there is nothing I’d label horrific, although the portrayal of Sister does push up to some lines that don’t feel great, given how little comedic payoff it leads to, those choices don’t feel worth the risk.

Just because the screenplay dodges the men think like THIS and women think like THAT laziness of the original does not mean we get nuance or surprise. Men, predominantly, think about sex or bizarre stuff. The occasional insights that might intrigue are so very occasional.

The truly funny bits often get stepped on by bad timing. For instance, there is a solid gag involving Shaquille O’Neal—Shaq as I call him—calculating the poker odds. He turns out to be a whiz at it. All the while though, he says out loud the most benign statements like, “I love pretzels.” Given both the spoken dialogue and O’Neal’s rep as a kind of lovable goof, it is strong. However, it got almost zero laughs in my theatre because the scene didn’t breathe.

I’ve read elsewhere that the film wanted to establish a screwball feel, but it seems to have only recognized the speed of those movies, not their sense of timing or wit.

WHAT MEN WANT: Ali and Joe Dolla
Taraji P. Henson and Tracy Morgan product place like it’s their job. Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Casting The Lead of WHAT MEN WANT

Taraji P. Henson has skills, of this there can be no doubt. Ali Davis is a hard character to play. She has to be likable enough for us to cheer for. However, she has to be unlikable enough for us to believe that she is the source of her own problems, not institutional sexism. Additionally, we have to buy her as a bad friend from the script’s assertion long before it shows any hint of her being lousy. And, once again, we have to buy her as a bad friend but still think of her as worthy of friendship. Finally, she has to portray that some of Ali’s masculine behaviors—for instance, her behavior in the bedroom—are not good without signaling men are bad and/or that it is bad for women to act like men. It is no easy load.

She does the work though. The script is too flawed to make Davis a character we deeply connect with, but we like her well enough and that’s an incredible feat.

WHAT MEN WANT: Aldis Hodge
Aldis Hodge plays it strong and sensitive in WHAT MEN WANT. Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Casting the Rest of the Callsheet

This movie is FILLED with talented people. How great is it to see Aldis Hodge treated as the sensitive hunk he should have been cast as for years? Or Max Greenfield getting some dramatic beats to chew on? What about Phoebe Robinson and Wendi McLendon-Covey rounding out the trio of Ali’s best friends? These are all great actors capable of doing good work. And they are all given criminally little to do.

Tracy Morgan is appealingly wacky as you might expect. He also gives enough glimpses of true love for his son not to end up a flat cartoon.

My favorite supporting player in the bunch is Josh Brener as Ali’s assistant Brandon Wallace. There is some weak stuff in the DNA—he’s gay AND he knows about sports?!?!—but Brener undercuts it all with the humanity he invests in Brandon.

WHAT MEN WANT: Ali and Brandon
Taraji P. Henson and Josh Bremen eye the office in a scene from WHAT MEN WANT. Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

 

The Music of WHAT MEN WANT

First, Brian Tyler is very good and his score feels like it was made for the movie that everyone imagined themselves making. It is zippy and fun with a good bounce and pace to it.

The soundtrack, however. The soundtrack…oof. This might be the most obviously selected set of songs since the SUICIDE SQUAD soundtrack.

For instance, take the moment where Ali plants her feet, in high heeled shoes, against an elevator door to facilitate the act of making love. It corresponds to the exact second En Vogue assures us via the song “Free Your Mind,” “I wear tight clothing and high heel shoes/It doesn’t mean that I’m a prostitute.” In another scene, we hear TLC’s “Creep” as she prepares to, well, creep on Will. It is the Mickey Mouse-est bit of music supervising I’ve seen in some time.

And don’t get me wrong, I lived through the 90s. I recognize Creep and Free Your Mind are jams. They slap, you might say. Still, that does not make them at all interesting as soundtrack choices when they match exactly what is happening on-screen.

WHAT MEN WANT: Sister and Ali
Erkyah Badu and Taraji P. Henson connect in a scene from WHAT MEN WANT. Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

That’s a Wrap!

Better than the original is damning this movie with faint praise, but faint praise is really all it deserves. Maybe someday someone will get some intriguing mileage out of this clever concept. However, it is not this day; it is not this film.

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