Ever since 2016’s “Hidden Figures,” I’ve been a fan of Taraji P. Henson. I’m also a fan of Mel Gibson before he went crazy, or rather before he let us know he was crazy. These two things combine to lead me to this review.
“What Women Want” came out in 2000 — I was a freshman in college and saw this movie on a non-date with a boy because that’s what I did 20 years ago — and starred Gibson and Helen Hunt, who is perfect in basically everything she does. I’m fairly certain I cackled like a hyena as Gibson’s character navigated the idea that women should have smooth legs and attempted waxing.
“What Men Want” is based on that 2000 film, which I really need to rewatch. But, while that film felt more like a romantic comedy, “What Men Want” is more of an ode to female empowerment.
Ali (named by her father who owns a boxing gym) is a female agent at a male-dominated sports agency. Most of her clients are female — hi, Lisa Leslie and Serena Williams — but her gender holds her back from becoming a partner at the firm. It doesn’t matter how talented she is. She’s one of the few women at a sports-focused agency, and honestly, they can’t see past what’s between her legs.
Because here’s the thing: Ali (Henson) isn’t a nice person. She’s rude, self-centered and only sees people as a means to an end. A sexual encounter is simply a conquest that gives her pleasure. Her partner is meaningless. A goal at work is nothing more than a way for her to outdo a co-worker. Her assistant, Brandon (Josh Brener), is nothing more than a whipping boy there to make her feel better about herself. He compliments her hotness and basically jumps when she says jump.
When the prestigious position of “partner” becomes available at her agency, Ali believes she’s a shoe-in. Unfortunately, one of her male counterparts lands the promotion. Ali is told by her boss that she doesn’t “connect well with men.” After an exchange with a psychic named Sister (Erykah Badu), Ali suddenly has the ability to hear men’s thoughts.
In “What Women Want,” Gibson’s character decided he missed out on a promotion because of gender. In Ali’s case, it’s actually true.
Whatever else “What Men Want” does, it nails the disjointed nature of a woman in a male-dominated industry. Ali is good at what she does, but she’s a woman. Thus, she’s not a part of the boys’ club. (Some of you guys might be shaking your heads, which I appreciate and maybe even understand because you’ve never heard from a female family member, friend, girlfriend, lover or spouse about what they are attempting to navigate. You don’t get it, or maybe you’ve never seen it happen. I have, and I’ve even experienced it, so it’s a concept I’m all too familiar with.)
I suppose “What Men Want” is considered a rom-com. It’s really not, but there’s a side storyline that involves romance, so I’ll give it to you. Ali does kind of have a relationship with a bartender named Will (Aldis Hodge), which you may have seen in the trailer. His little boy wears her underwear on his head after she’s had a one-night stand with his dad. (Wakanda forever, y’all.)
Completely unrelated side note: I think rom-com is used a little too liberally these days to describe a female comedy. (Entertainment Weekly just labeled 2011’s “Bridesmaids” as a romantic comedy. Umm, sure.)
On the romantic comedy front, “What Men Want” has some sweet moments. Honestly, Ali isn’t that likable so you’re kind of hoping Will will just run far, far away to a safer location. The real magic comes when Ali isn’t trying to be awesome, when she’s not trying to win or outdo something. Her single father (played by Richard Roundtree) taught her that winning is everything. You put your fists up, and you’ll be ready for all the blows that MIGHT come your way. Unfortunately, he trained Ali to be a fighter so well that she doesn’t actually know how to have a real relationship with anyone.
Her girlfriends — they keep popping up, but they aren’t even worth naming — aren’t real friendships. Brandon actually cares about her, but she’s too up her own butt to see it. She sees co-workers as adversaries. Ali is an island, and she doesn’t know how to let people on. Mind you, some of these relationships she just needs to walk away from. I think we’re supposed to feel the bond between her and her girlfriends, but it just feels awkward and forced. It’s like she’s hired friendship hookers to have dinner with her. Nothing feels genuine, and there won’t be kisses.
And, I guess that’s the story for this entire movie. A lot of parts don’t feel genuine or lifelike. The cast and crew do their best to approximate life and real human emotion, then something over-the-top and zany happens to undercut what you’ve just seen. “What Men Want” won’t send you home satisfied, but it will scratch that comedic itch if you’re really desperate for something you might regret later. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s nothing that won’t wait until Netflix to see.