We know that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. We know that. We’re just not wired the same. So we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that director Adam Shankman’s comedy What Men Want is simply a role reversal of the Nancy Meyer’s film What Women Want. That’s a false equivalent.
Certainly, it has a similar premise. The lead character gets a knock on the head leading to the ability to hear the thoughts of the opposite sex. But when those thoughts differ considerably from gender to gender in both tone and subject, there are contrary things to learn.
In the 2001 comedy, when Mel Gibson gets his severe knock on the head and suddenly hears what the women around him are thinking, he discovers that women are just as assertive and as clever as any man. To his dismay, once the obvious comic fun of knowing what is going on in the minds of the ladies is covered, he discovers that women have the ability to outsmart and out lead a guy in almost any situation. Who knew? Not he. Being a comedy with an ultimate soft center, Gibson may eventually get another severe knock on the head (what are the odds?) to stop that sudden superpower, but at least it teaches him to be a better man. It was all about his redemption and an enlightened appreciation of the opposite sex.
In the new film it’s Taraji P. Henson’s turn to get the knock on the head, but hearing the thoughts of men isn’t quite the same. Rather than sounding clever and assertive, we’re crass and ‘R’ rated. We know that, and women already know that. With that in mind, so to speak, there’s nothing really new for Henson’s character to learn, even though, like the PG-13 rated 2001 version, the new ‘R’ rated film follows the same path as the old and is ultimately about Henson’s redemption. But the film makes the mistakes that the Gibson comedy made and misses all the opportunities that could have distinguished it into being something clever and unique rather than the standard and obvious movie it ends up being.
Henson plays Alison Davis, or Ali. She’s an ambitious go-getter sports agent in a company populated exclusively by males. She’s been up since 3 am working, her mind racing with ideas. She’s the type with aggressive energy that won’t quit. “I’m not dealing with stupid people today,” she declares, though in truth, from her perspective, she probably feels as though she deals with stupid people every day. Once her timid, gay assistant Brandon (Josh Brener) arrives at her apartment ready to start the day, with no time to spare any chit-chat, Ali snaps her fingers and exclaims, “Let’s go.” Working for her can’t be fun.
But today is special. She’s up for a promotion as a partner. But when it doesn’t come – her boss tells her she doesn’t connect well with men – Ali drowns her sorrow in some after-hours booze with girlfriends, followed by a weird concoction of tea from Haiti, given to her by an equally weird psychic (Erykah Badu). The drink makes her woozy. But when she gets bonked on the head and is knocked out, she wakes up in a hospital with the ability to hear the thoughts of men.
At first, she thinks it’s a curse. What she’s hearing from all the men around her is as descriptively vulgar as you would imagine. Plus, she hates that all the men at work seem to be getting the upper hand on everything. But when she returns to the psychic ordering the woman to stop the thoughts she’s hearing, it’s the psychic who puts things into perspective. When it comes to men getting the better of her, there’s an easy solution. “If you can read their thoughts, how they gonna do that?” the psychic asks.
From there, the film becomes a series of Ali reading men, using what she knows, and from time to time getting the upper hand against her male counterparts. In reality, once she’d trained herself to shut out certain things and focus on the information she needs, she could have really shined, but What Men Want wants to remain a situation comedy and stick to formula.
Instead of doing a Jerry Maguire and opening her own company with new clients and navigating deals with an unbelievable advantage from the beginning, which would have made a much more interesting film, she remains with the boy’s club. Through a series of repeated and obvious broad farce, she makes mistakes, loses friendships, and generally messes up. Ultimately, once she gets another severe knock on the head (really, what are the odds?) she’ll learn something about herself. Unlike Gibson’s character, for Ali there’s nothing new to learn about men – we’re dogs; let’s not kid ourselves – but at least the experience will make her a nicer and somewhat calmer person.
One mistake a critic often makes, and should always be on guard against doing, is critiquing a film for not being what he or she wants it to be while ignoring the effectiveness of what it is. Green Book is an example. In terms of its target audience, What Men Want undoubtedly succeeds. The response of the audience at the screening was overwhelmingly positive. True, screening audiences aren’t necessarily the same as regular audiences – they’re not movie buffs or students of film, they just acquired a free pass – but still, their continuous laughter remains an indication of the good word of mouth to follow.
Still, it’s a shame that director Shankman and his writers took the more obvious raunchy sit-com path rather than exploring the real possibilities of what reading a guy’s mind could do and how a woman could use that knowledge. Every generation is defined by the changing tastes and tones of the era they’re born into. They want to define things for themselves and separate from the previous. The mostly teenage audience that will see What Men Want were not around or were only just born when the eighteen-year-old Gibson comedy was released. Thus where comic vulgarity and the use of colorful expletives were absent in the first film, they’re in abundance in the new, and that’s to be expected in today’s ‘R’ rated sex comedy. But how much funnier would the film have been had the coarse and f-bomb laden language throughout was relegated only to what Henson’s character hears in the minds of men rather than what is actually spoken? And, seriously, why, just like the first film, are events contrived to eventually take the ability away?
In the end, though Ali Davis wants to use her new found power to help her rise, because of the route Shankman’s movie takes, all it’s really doing is dragging her in the opposite direction.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 117 Minutes