Star-led studio comedy can do more than “What Men Want”

A group of people sitting around a poker table.
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Grade: 2.5/5.0

Back in 2000, Nancy Meyers made a tacky premise into a monster hit with “What Women Want” — a Mel Gibson vehicle that sensibly posited that the kind of man he plays would have to be electrocuted multiple times in order to figure out the women in his life have emotions and ambitions. After a classic hair-dryer-in-the-bathtub accident, Gibson’s Nick Marshall awakens to discover that he can not only hear women’s thoughts, but that they all think he’s an arrogant prick undeserving of his success.

Though that film remains the second highest grossing romantic comedy in the United States, its central gag doesn’t exactly scream for a remake, much less a gender-flipped one. “What Men Want” has to fight an uphill battle of making secret the thoughts that men are generally free to say out loud.

In this remake, Ali Davis (Taraji P. Henson) scores some of the biggest profits at her Atlanta-based sports agency, but she finds herself unable to break the glass ceiling when she isn’t promoted to partner. Divine intervention arrives at a bachelorette party in the form of a psychic (Erykah Badu), whose drug-laced tea kickstarts a wild night that ends in Ali suffering from a concussion. Lo and behold, upon waking up, she discovers she can hear the thoughts of every man she encounters, an unspeakable nightmare she soon realizes can be wielded as a cheat code in her professional life.

While Gibson’s accident comes moments after a Sinatra needle drop and a fedora-flipping dance number, Henson’s concussion is the product of a less ostentatiously classy accident — getting knocked over by a giant inflatable penis while 2 Live Crew plays in the background. It is in moments like this that “What Men Want” works best, unconcerned with appearing sophisticated as its predecessor did. And though this can often make for a scattered energy, the film is best when it embraces its clumsier side.

If only the film went a step further and extended its premise beyond easy situational comedy to demonstrate its protagonist’s versatility. Whenever the movie needs to move the plot along, a man will imagine his desires and Ali will repeat them verbatim. The pattern gets old fast. There’s a good joke here about how plenty of infantile men can be pacified by having their own desires reaffirmed through immediate gratification, but it’s not a thread that’s picked up on by either Ali or the film.

It’s indicative of the film’s crippling inability to connect its protagonist’s growth to her superpower. Ali can easily identify prospective one-night stands, spill the tea on the cheating boyfriends of her buddies, deliver on what clients want faster than anybody else and investigate which of her male coworkers is gay (Pete Davidson, inexplicably; a realization the movie revels in with reprehensibly fanatic glee).

But the learning experience the film tries to forward is a baseless waste of space. In an early scene, Ali’s condescending boss states that she “doesn’t connect well with men.” This statement initially reads as indicative of the character’s callously offhanded misogyny, but is soon discovered to be a truth believed by the script and, even worse, one in dire need of remedying. This ill-founded self-improvement slant ends up defeating the movie in its drag of a final stretch, where Ali must ping-pong to every side character she’s even slightly wronged to make amends with each of them individually.

Not that there isn’t fun to be had before the obligations to loose ends. Henson seems enthused to work in such a screwball set-up, and she commits to the shenanigans wholesale, from probing men’s insecurities to her character’s unobstructed libido. And her cast is just as good. As Ali’s romantic interest, Aldis Hodge turns a role that could’ve been a dimensionless zaddy hunk into a likeable doormat, an ideal complement to Ali’s omnipotent determination. And Tracy Morgan is a hysterical pinch hitter as an egotistical Lavar Ball figure.

But all of these performances stand on their own merits; the movie lets them down through its protracted and purposeless utilizations of its premise. One of the juiciest comic set-ups in the movie — a secret boys’ night poker game that Ali crashes, packed with celebrities from Shaquille O’Neal to Mark Cuban. The entire thing unfolds in smooth montage, with only two or three lines going to each prospective clown and no satisfaction in watching them get duped by the one woman at the table. And like many other moments in the film, it’s a wasted opportunity, not only for commentary, but also basic wit.

“What Men Want” is now playing at UA Berkeley 7.

Jackson Kim Murphy covers film. Contact him at [email protected].