The 2019 film What Men Want is a reimagining of the 2000 movie What Women Want, which starred Mel Gibson as a chauvinistic advertising executive who develops the ability to hear what women are thinking. This female-forward version flips the script as sports agent Ali Davis (Taraji P. Henson) begins to hear the unspoken thoughts of the men around her. Though previously edged out of career opportunities by her male counterparts, it seems like this new super power may be just what Ali needs to get ahead in a business traditionally dominated by men. And yet, with her newfound powers comes newfound knowledge – insights into her own psyche and that of others, the likes of which Ali does not always wish to know. While the spirit behind this remake has merit, unfortunately the film ironically embodies the exact opposite of what women (and men) would want.
Directed by Adam Shankman (Hairspray), What Men Want refreshingly takes place in the heart of the sports scene in downtown Atlanta. While a novel backdrop for this romantic comedy may be a welcome break from yet another New York City flick, unfortunately the overall production of the movie fails to impress. The score is an odd mix of what seems like elevator music and female empowerment anthems, such as Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills”. While audiences may appreciate a discussion around gender inequality in the workplace, it’s difficult to take anyone seriously when Beyoncé is blaring loudly in the background. Not to mention, a steady stream of cameo appearances provides yet another distraction from a central theme that deserves full attention. It’s difficult to keep track of the gender discussion when Mark Cuban, Shaquille O’Neal, Pete Davidson, and Erykah Badu drift in and out of scenes.
Nonetheless, Taraji P. Henson is convincing as high-powered female executive Ali Davis, determined to take on the sexist sports industry (and win). The film’s shining moments – although few and far between – typically feature Ali in an honest confession about past mistakes and changing for the better. Amidst the easy-to-hate bro culture, there are also two redeeming male characters in the roles of Ali’s father, Skip (Richard Roundtree), and Ali’s love interest, Will (Aldis Hodge). They give audiences a glimmer of hope that not all men are bad. Or perhaps it simply seems that way, because their characters are starkly juxtaposed against alpha-male peacocking and exaggerated locker room talk. Though this kind of sexist workplace culture no doubt exists (particularly in the sports industry), the overall portrayal comes across as hyperbolic and ridiculous. On-the-nose references to the #MeToo movement, “I’m with her,” and Jordan Peele’s Get Out leave little room to depict the more nuanced, bigoted behaviors that stealthily plague many offices today.
Though What Men Want may satisfy a craving for a guilty-pleasure romantic comedy, central themes of power dynamics and systemic gender inequality are not lost on audiences. Yet Ali’s clear desire for power in all aspects of her life – even in the bedroom – is so overstated that it may be difficult to relate to female audiences. This film represents these central issues through extremes, but in doing so, neglects the reality that gender inequality is much more layered and complex. While noteworthy and commendable to even address such social issues in a romantic comedy, the film’s execution may be too one-dimensional to be truly impactful. What Men Want suggests that Ali practically needs secret powers to get ahead in her career; this notion leaves “ordinary” women in the audience wondering how they themselves can advance without such an edge. The conclusion of this story offers inspiration for women to take a leap of faith and strike out on their own. Indeed, perhaps the film should have taken its own advice. This diverse and talented female cast would have been better off forging their own path altogether, rather than following in the cinematic footsteps of Mel Gibson to create a film derived from a movie originally about a man.