PLOT A female sports agent develops the power to read men’s minds.
CAST Taraji P. Henson, Aldis Hodge, Tracy Morgan
RATED R (strong language and sexual humor)
BOTTOM LINE A gender-focused comedy that feels both uncertain and out of step.
For a good example of why comedy has become such a difficult profession at a time of shifting norms and heightened sensitivities, look no further than “What Men Want.” Featuring Taraji P. Henson as an ambitious career woman who acquires the power to read men’s minds, “What Men Want” is a remake of Nancy Meyers' “What Women Want,” which featured Mel Gibson as a suddenly psychic chauvinist. This would seem to be a simple case of updating an old, male-centric movie for our female-conscious moment. As director Adam Shankman, his team of writers and his unmistakably talented cast discover, that turns out be harder than it sounds.
Henson plays Ali, a sports agent at a testosterone-fueled firm where success goes hand-in-hand with locker-room talk and poker-night prowess. Ali doesn't have the right chromosomes, so she compensates with extra hustle, drive and focus. Named for a certain boxer whose picture hangs in her Atlanta loft, Ali is a ferocious competitor.
So, what's the problem? According to this film it isn't widespread sexism, but Ali. She takes her devoted assistant, Brandon (Josh Brener, stopping just short of gay caricature), for granted. She flakes out on friends (Wendi McLendon-Covey, Tamala Jones and others). She's thoughtless in bed, as one hapless conquest, Will (Aldis Hodge), discovers. In short, she's selfish, aggressive and insensitive.
Are these classic female faults? I'll just go out on a gender-stereotype limb and say: No. What we have here, then, is not a gender send-up but a general learn-and-grow fable, along the lines of “Groundhog Day” or “Liar, Liar.” What Ali learns, after a knock on the head allows her to hear men's thoughts, is that she has a people problem, not a male problem.
“What Men Want” has painted itself into a corner, and the cast is trapped. Henson remains a class act; Tracy Morgan, as the father of a young ballplayer, plies his gift for free-associative improv; and the singer Erykah Badu, as an eccentric psychic named Sister, is almost worth the ticket price. Nevertheless, “What Men Want” always seems to be dog-paddling against cultural currents.
One final question: Care to guess what men turn out to be thinking about in this movie? That's right — sex. Mystery solved.
Henson's movie empire
It might seem as though Taraji P. Henson only recently stepped into the spotlight thanks to her work in Fox’s hip-hop drama “Empire,” but she’s been working steadily since the late 1990s. Here are four of her other film appearances:
HUSTLE & FLOW (2005) Craig Brewer’s acclaimed drama cast Henson as Shug, a sex worker who begins a romantic and artistic relationship with her pimp, DJay, an aspiring rapper (Terrence Howard).
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (2008) Though somewhat forgotten now, David Fincher’s film about a man who ages backward (Brad Pitt) earned 13 Oscar nods, including one for Henson as Queenie, the woman who adopts the wrinkly little guy.
THINK LIKE A MAN (2012) Henson led a stellar cast in this hit rom-com based on the Steve Harvey book. Kevin Hart found his breakout role here; others in the ensemble included Michael Ealy, Meagan Good, Regina Hall, Romany Malco and Gabrielle Union.
HIDDEN FIGURES (2016) Henson played real life NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, who did her part in helping send John Glenn into space. The film was nominated for a best picture Oscar and earned a Screen Actors Guild award for best ensemble thanks to Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner and others. — RAFER GUZMAN