The 2000 Mel Gibson hit What Women Want undergoes a sex-change operation and emerges as What Men Want (**1/2 out of four), a rousing if rocky remake-of-sorts that proves to be no better and no worse than its predecessor.
In that Y2K smash, Gibson played a misogynistic advertising executive who, through a freak accident, is given the gift/curse of hearing the inner thoughts of members of the opposite sex. At first, he uses his newfound ability to get ahead, but once he slows down and starts to really listen to what’s being internally said, he blossoms into a sensitive male with a new interest in women’s rights. More nonsensical than knowing, What Women Want found the superstar delivering a charming and believable performance (more so since we now know the true inner thoughts of Mr. “Sugar Tits”).
The dynamics are slightly changed in What Men Want. Ali Davis (Taraji P. Henson) looks down on most guys not because she’s a man-hater but because they’re perpetually keeping her down at her place of employment. A high-powered sports agent, she’s repeatedly passed over for partnership at her firm, even as she witnesses the usual mediocre white males ascending ever higher. Interestingly, though, she’s not much better than her dude-bro co-workers. For starters, she treats her harried assistant Brandon (Josh Brenner) poorly, she blows off her best friends with regularity, and she’s selfish in the sack, leaving her lovers hanging once she enjoys her orgasm.
A well-timed bump on the head changes all that — at least eventually. Once she’s able to read the thoughts of all men, she’s able to stay one step ahead of the colleagues who are trying to box her out. It also provides her with the inside track on acquiring as a client the most promising newbie in the upcoming NBA draft: Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie), a sensible kid who’s under the thumb of his well-meaning but overbearing dad, Joe “Dolla” Barry (Tracy Morgan). But her newly acquired gift doesn’t seem to curb her self-centered attitude, as she still treats Brandon shabbily and even uses her boyfriend (Aldon Hodge) and his young son (Auston Jon Moore) in her scheme to get ahead.
Clearly, Ali needs to become a better person while subjugating the louts around her, and that she does with clockwork precision in a film that, like the Gibson version, never takes full advantage of its intriguing premise. In its depiction of the male-female dichotomy, even the dated Tootsie still works better than this new effort, which goes for the obvious gags and the obvious reads on too many occasions. The inner thoughts heard in the film are rarely anything more challenging than one man wondering if he can break wind with nobody noticing, and another guy plotting to bang a hot waitress whether it’s before or after his upcoming wedding. It’s not that this is inaccurate; it’s just that it’s incomplete, resulting in a film that remains frustratingly on the surface when there are some tantalizing depths to be mined.
Henson is in typically fine form, although the film piles on her character flaws to such a high degree at the start that her eventual thaw is a stretch even in the context of the outlandish premise. At least she enjoys solid chemistry with Hodge — an improvement over the mismatched pairing of Gibson and Helen Hunt back in the day. Morgan is as broad as ever and thus not particularly amusing; in the overacting sweepstakes, the better option is Erykah Badu, who’s a riot as a particularly peculiar psychic.
There’s no doubt that What Men Want is what at least some audiences want. But with a little more insight, it could have provided some substantial food for thought to go along with those concession snacks.