When a woman needs a man
What Men Want
Director: Adam Shankman
Stars: Taraji P. Henson, Kristen Ledlow, Josh Brener
Duration: 117 mins
KRS Releasing Ltd
What Women Want was a middling Mel Gibson romantic comedy released in 2000, whose premise had Gibson playing a chauvinistic advertising executive who, after a freak accident, developed the ability to read women’s thoughts, became a better man and lived happily ever after. What Men Want is a kind of (unwarranted) remake with a gender flip – this time, it is the female protagonist whose ability to read the minds of members of the opposite sex is supposed to provoke some introspection.
The dynamic Taraji P. Henson is Ali Davis, a top agent in the fierce, male-dominated world of sports management. She is a hard-working and dedicated member of Summit Worldwide Management, with an enviable portfolio of top-ranking female athletes that bring in money and recognition for the agency.
When a partnership position opens at the firm, Ali is led to believe that she will be chosen to fill it. When a (male) colleague considerably less experienced than her is given the promotion, Ali has to overcome not only her embarrassment but the fact that, as the adage goes, she still has to work twice as hard to get only half what her male counterparts do in terms of recognition and acceptance. So she sets her sights on signing up-and-coming basketball superstar Jamal Barry, whatever it takes.
In a world in which, for the most part, women are still struggling to get their dues, What Men Want misses an important opportunity to comment on an issue that is still front and centre in the social discourse. Yet, as is often seen in stories of this ilk, it skirts over the issues in favour of the broader comedic strokes of the story.
Writers Tina Gordon, Peter Huyck and Alex Gregory can’t avoid the stereotyping traps so often associated with this kind of storyline. That Ali has traits often seen as ‘masculine’ – tough negotiating skills, assertiveness, a no-nonsense attitude to her job and a healthy sexual appetite – is depicted as something negative. They are reasons why her co-workers see her as bossy, and a bitch. The film seems to say that she can only be redeemed by tapping into her ‘softer’ side.
The story also disappointingly enforces the ‘woman needs a man to be complete’ trope and takes a trip down the romantic garden path, thanks to her complicated relationship with the sympathetic Will (Aldis Hodge) who, unbeknownst to him – and in a totally baffling plot point – Ali pretends is her husband. And it is her boxing manager father (played with gravitas by Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree) – yet another man – from whom she seeks validation.
Ali’s co-workers are little more that thinly sketched chauvinists. Tracy Morgan is the obnoxious Joe ‘Dolla’ Barry, Jamal’s overbearing father.
The posse of women co-stars who make up Ali’s coterie of Best Friends Forever (Wendi McLendon-Covey, Phoebe Robinson and Tamala Jones) provide some of the funniest moments – a wedding brawl which breaks out when Ali overhears something she really can’t keep quiet about is a particular highlight. So too does the presence of singing superstar Erykah Badu as a Sister, a particularly colourful and eccentric psychic.
Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner (for her work on hit series Empire) Henson is probably best known as a dramatic actor, so the film lets her show off her considerable comedic prowess. She gamely takes pratfalls but more importantly she imbues Ali with equal parts smarts and sass, and makes her extremely likable despite her many flaws.
She is matched by co-star Josh Brener as her gay assistant – another person seen as ‘other’ – and it is actually refreshing that it is through Ali’s interaction with him that she also learns a solid lesson or two.
In sum, we never actually do get to know what men want (apart from the obvious). And neither is it really illustrated how, even if she did know, Ali could change things. Why she could not break down barriers by just being herself eluded me. Now that would be a good film.