In Nancy Meyers’s 2000 film What Women Want, Mel Gibson plays a sleazy, womanizing advertising executive oblivious to the fact that he’s a terrible person. When a freak accident leaves him with the ability to read women’s minds, he discovers they all despise him and are far more complicated creatures than his tiny man brain first comprehended. For him, the exercise was an important lesson in recognizing the humanity of (who knew!) women, one which seemed to poke fun at stereotypical depictions of bumbling men who can’t seem to figure out what women are thinking, as if they’re sphinxes.
But when you flip the genders of that premise for What Men Want, a new remake starring Taraji P. Henson, the film is suddenly primed to be a horror movie for any woman walking this Earth. The problem with the question of “what do men want?” is that they usually just tell you, rather inelegantly. On the whole they usually have no issue with telling women that they want to fuck them, or that they don’t like the way a woman might look in her skirt, or that women are incapable of doing their same jobs successfully, to name just a few. Women can barely walk down a street in a city without being asked to sit on someone’s face—that’s how little mystery there often is to the male psyche! As corny as What Women Want was, it was at least working within a premise that understood women frequently keep their cards to themselves, often opting to shut up and smile around their male coworkers rather than actually speak their minds, because more often than not their honesty isn’t rewarded but penalized.
That’s a problem facing this remake, despite the fact that Henson is incredibly funny as Ali Davis, a sports agent angling for a partnership at her company. Henson plays her character with a complete inability to maintain decorum in the face of male incompetency, which manifests in a delightfully fed up performance of eye-rolling, screaming, and literally busting balls with the angling of a pool cue. She’s also best when she’s bouncing off of Tracy Morgan, who plays the money-grubbing father of a star basketball player Davis is trying to sign who gives a memorable monologue on every single ingredient he puts in his son’s daily smoothies, and Erykah Badu, who plays a wild psychic who gives her a tea to hear men’s thoughts and fills her tarot readings with irreverent bullshit. “I’ve been sober for 19 years,” she tells Davis, straight-faced, as she shuffles through a tarot deck that inexplicably includes some Uno cards. “Except for the weed, the peyote, and the crack.”
There are truly terrific performances in this movie, but the structural logic holding up the whole thing just doesn’t make sense. It’s impossible not to root for Davis, who is passed over for the partnership to a white guy (Max Greenfield) and is struggling to be heard in a bro-filled office that begins meetings by literally barking like dogs and pounding the conference table. But the movie tries to sell the audience on this idea that Davis is a selfish person who “doesn’t get dudes.” How this dissonance is illustrated to us is, confusingly, the fact that 1) Davis understands her worth and wants a partnership and 2) Davis seamlessly flirts her way into bed with the hot romantic lead bartender (Aldis Hodge) and then quickly gets her orgasm and falls asleep. Watching this, all I could think was: why exactly does this make her a bad person? The movie tries to cut Davis from the same cloth Mel Gibson’s character was cut from, but she’s far too charming to come off as the cold bitch the movie insists she is.
Then there’s the issue of the revelations Davis has from hearing men’s thoughts. They’re not as enlightening as much as they are annoying, as she walks down the halls of her office to the sounds of men proclaiming “Anal isn’t cheating!” or “How did she get pregnant? I pulled out!” While she does use them to her advantage (figuring out the true desires of the young basketball player she’s trying to sign, showing off at a previously secret work poker game), some of the worst jabs in What Men Want come from men speaking their minds freely, out loud, rather than in the corners of their mind. At one point her boss says that if the “Me Too-ers” of the world weren’t primed to come after him, he’d fire her in a minute, implying that because she’s a black woman he can’t lose her for optics. “I’m not going to be your twofer,” Davis says, daring him to fire her.
It’s the performances of What Men Want that make it fun to watch, but the realities of the film’s plot are a little depressing. The problem is that Davis, as a black woman, seems already well aware of what her white male coworkers think of her because they’re not exactly subtle about it. Here, the ability to hear their thoughts isn’t an explosive peek into a world she isn’t aware of, but a stark confirmation that when men show you who they are, you should believe them.