Released: 14th February
Seen: 17th February
In the year 2000, the film What Women Want was released. Starring Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt, the film revolved around an advertising executive who is a bit of a chauvinist… Ok, he’s a lot of a chauvinist and his sexist attitudes get kicked into high gear when a woman is hired to help broaden the firm’s appeal to women. What follows is several hours of Mel’s character not learning anything, not really listening and using the power that he’s been given (through the magic combination of lipstick, panties and electrocution) in order to maintain his spot at the top of the food chain. He will at one point use this power to stop a woman from committing suicide in a series of tonal whiplash scenes that this movie doesn’t handle well, but for the most part he uses it to maintain his status at the top. To make my opinion on the original even clearer than it is, I didn’t like it very much. I didn’t find it to be a good use of the concept that it was gifted and it definitely didn’t age well. So, when I heard that there was a gender-flipped remake coming out I can’t pretend that I wasn’t nervous about it… fortunately, my nerves were not needed.
What Men Want follows a similar story arc to the original, but the details are what set it apart. Ali Davis (Taraji P. Henson) is a sports agent trying to make partner at her firm, but she can’t in part due to the systemic sexism that seems to flow throughout the place, culminating in her being told that she won’t make partner and should just “stay in her lane” handling the female sports stars. Later that day, at a friend’s bachelorette party, Ali gets a psychic reading from Sister (Erykah Badu) and through a cosmic series of events, Ali ends up with the power to hear men’s thoughts. Finally given a tool she can use, Ali tries to use this power to get a rising basketball superstar to sign up as a client in hopes that getting him will land her the partnership that she wants. Along the way, she’ll also have to deal with a new romance with a bartender; Will (Aldis Hodge) that only complicates her problems.
The thing that sets the remake apart from the original is a sense that there’s a goal attached to this power. In the original, Mel Gibson’s character pretty much had everything he needed and just needed to learn a lesson about how to not be an asshole to women. In this, Taraji’s character keeps hitting a wall that is being put in front of her by the system she’s in and the power is her ticket to try and overcome that. It creates a real sense of drama and makes you root for her. You want to see her make partner because you see the drive in her and just how much she grows throughout the film. It’s not “She needs to learn about how to listen to men”, it’s that she has to learn that she doesn’t need to compete like they are, she can be herself and be amazing as hell and it’s kind of awesome. It helps a lot that Taraji is just one of the greatest performers working today, she creates a character that’s charming as hell but clearly has issues and you want to see her overcome them. She knows how to deliver a joke, and every time she gets to stretch a comedic muscle it’s just a joy to watch. She will give someone a single look and it’s time to hit the floor laughing because she did it with expert timing. I hope we get a lot more comedies out of her because she is phenomenal.
Throughout the film, there are so many great little touches that make the concept work, one of the big ones being that another character knows about what’s going on. Ali’s assistant Brandon (Josh Brener) knows within minutes about how Ali’s power work meaning that there is an actual comedic potential that allows both parties to fling some genuinely hilarious jokes at each other and maxes out the comedic potential of reading someone’s thoughts. It’s also cool that several of the major characters have a plotline of their own that actually relates to the main plot, not just a completely different plot that feels like an intrusion. There are some plots that kind of drop off once we hit the punch line, including one involving Ali’s neighbour (Kellan Lutz) that I can imagine was a hilarious day on set, but for the most part, the story of every character goes to a really great conclusion. Also, for my own personal aside, there’s a gay storyline involving Brandon that I genuinely liked that was sweet and actually felt different to other versions I’ve seen of that plotline.
Now, let me just spend an entire paragraph praising the glorious Erykah Badu who basically steals the entire movie in 2 scenes. As the character that basically is responsible for the creation of this power, Erykah nails every single joke that she’s been gifted by creating a transcendent character that was a pure delight to watch. I would gleefully just watch an hour-long tarot card reading by this character because Erykah makes it so hilariously entertaining. I honestly do not know if she’s a legitimate psychic pretending to be a fraud or a fake psychic who is just pushing it to 11, but Sister is the highlight of this film. Her entrance alone is so well handled that you know that when she opens her mouth, pure gold is about to come out. She’s so good that they literally shot her giving readings to several major characters to put into the end credits because they knew that she was going to be the standout performance in this film and she is, I would say go see it just for her alone but the rest of the movie is so enjoyable that I don’t even need that specific caveat.
What Men Want is a great reworking of an old story that does what all these remakes should be doing, it takes the stuff that worked well the first time and improves on the problem areas. I dare say this film is so much better than the original in almost every way, from a better cast and script to a better understanding of comedic timing. The jokes are well executed and delivered with gusto by a cast that is playing for the joke every single time. It’s a much more broad comedy than the original, which is what the concept really needs in order to work well. With only a few minor moments where I feel they fumbled, it was a genuinely great time for a really fun comedy that is worth checking out.