What Women Want is a really creepy and gross movie about Mel Gibson seducing women by reading their minds. Even by the stretched standards of its sexual politics being dated, it’s just not a very good movie and is a pretty uncomfortable watch if you take more than two seconds to think about the extent of the main character’s powers and the ways in which he chooses to exploit them. With this in mind, the idea of gender-flipping the premise into What Men Want feels fraught with problems that range from playing the premise the exact same way without acknowledging the differences between gendered experiences, to flipping the script entirely so that men are so inept that they aren’t even worth sexual pursuit. The film we get thankfully ends up falling somewhere in between these tired extremes, resulting in a comedy that probably isn’t as funny as it thinks it is but is so full of heart that it’s easy to forgive that.
Taraji P. Henson stars as Ali, a sports agent trying to get ahead at her boys’ club of an agency. She is ruthless and excels at her work, yet she is again and again passed over for promotion because her clients are primarily women's’ league players and she is aggressive and combative with her male counterparts. She decides she’s going to personally land the contract for the next big NBA star her agency is courting so that she cannot be passed over for a partnership again, but in the midst of her planning she goes to her friend’s bachelorette party. There she meets a psychic who gives her some special tea, and one party-induced bump on the head later, Ali can hear the inner thoughts of men in snazzy dubbed voiceover. Ali uses her newfound gift to gain the upper hand at work, but in the process, she slowly starts to alienate her friends and a new romantic interest.
If there’s one major identifiable problem with What Men Want, it’s that the jokes are pretty underwritten. Sure, one could point out that the narrative is juggling one too many subplots as the film’s introduction and climax are overstuffed with set-ups and resolutions - some of them noticeably forced in execution - for Ali’s friends, co-workers, and datemate Will (Aldis Hodge), but all of this would be a lot less noticeable if the comedy were consistently up to par. The constant running gag is that the male thoughts Ali hears are vulgar, stupid, and crass in ironic or surprising ways, which does land sometimes but is severely overused and never feels any more illuminating than the personalities the male characters already telegraph to the audience. These voiceovers aren’t the only tricks up the film’s sleeve, but the dialogue is pretty consistently sub-par from a comedy standpoint, so much so that even Tracy Morgan's vamping as the eccentric father of Ali’s prospective client cannot save it.
Remarkably enough, though, what does save it is some fantastic direction by Adam Shankman and a pretty great performance from Taraji P. Henson. When given the opportunity to react to her coworkers’ inner monologues or the variety of sticky situations her newfound power leads her to, Henson walks a careful line between exaggerated overreaction and restrained incredulity, elevating lackluster jokes through pure charisma and comic timing. Aldis Hodge, Josh Brener, and Max Greenfield all offer some great supporting turns for her to bounce off of, but this is Henson’s show and she owns it, shifting between farce and light drama so effortlessly that it’s easy to forget just how flimsy the material she’s working with actually is.
To call What Men Want a labor of love would probably be overselling it, but it is a film that feels made with more empathy in mind than calculation. The name of the game is relatability, and with Henson at center stage it’s hard to go wrong, even when it’s the pure strength of her talents that's keeping the entire film from collapsing in on itself. I may have wanted more from What Men Want, but I’m still pretty happy with what I got.