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Mind over matter – ‘What Men Want’

February 8, 2019
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It seems like every other weekend sees another big-screen remake landing at the box office; while that’s an exaggeration, it’s not much of one. And the truth is that many if not most of those projects are cynical attempts to cash in on an audience’s fond memories. An equal number are creatively bankrupt as well. But this isn’t a binary, some sort of good/bad all or nothing. There’s ample gray area.

Not all remakes are created equal.

Take “What Men Want,” a remake of 2000’s Mel Gibson-fronted “What Women Want.” This new film – directed by Adam Shankman and starring Taraji P. Henson – reverses the gender roles but leaves everything else more or less the same. The end result is a movie that is a bit wobbly on its feet and more than a little uneven, but manages to engage the audience and pull off a couple of laughs.

Henson stars as Ali Davis, a sports agent working for one of the most prominent firms in the business. She’s got some star clients, but despite her best efforts at playing the bro-game, she can’t seem to break through into the boys’ club and get the promotion to partner that she deserves.

Her assistant Brandon (Josh Brener, “The Front Runner”) bears the brunt of her frustration through gritted teeth. Her boss Nick (Brian Bosworth, for reasons that no one has adequately explained to me) and her colleagues Ethan (Jason Jones, “Goon: Last of the Enforcers”) and Kevin (Max Greenfield, TV’s “The Neighbors”) all think she should “stay in her lane.”

Everything changes when she attends a bachelorette party. The bride to be is Ali’s friend Mari (Tamala Jones, “American Nightmares”); old pals and fellow bridesmaids Ciarra (Phoebe Robinson, “Ibiza”) and Olivia (Wendy McLendon-Covey, TV’s “The Goldbergs”) are there too. The evening gets weird – a psychic does a tarot reading and gives Ali some weird tea before the gang goes to a club where Ali accidentally winds up knocking herself out.

She wakes up in a hospital … and she can hear the thoughts of men.

Ali’s soon using her newfound power to her every advantage. She manipulates events around her office. She uses it to work her way toward a career-making deal with future NBA number-one pick Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie, TV’s “Sacred Lies”) and his meddling weirdo father Joe Dolla (Tracy Morgan, TV’s “The Last O.G.”). She even finds ways to enhance her budding relationship with Will (Aldis Hodge, “Brian Banks”), a single father that she likes (though she has other motives as well).

As you might expect, none of it really goes according to plan. Things start to careen out of her control, leaving Ali less concerned about what men want and more about what it is that she herself actually wants – and what she’s willing to let go to get it.

Gender-swapping has occupied its own remake corner over the past few years – how successfully depends almost entirely on who you ask. This film was due for the remake treatment and a prime candidate for this sort of flip-flop. It’s a reasonably successful effort, as far as that goes; no one will mistake it for great cinema (or even as good as its problematic predecessor), but you can go and have a few laughs. It could be worse.

A big part of WHY it succeeds comes down to the work done by Henson. For this kind of movie to have any shot at working, the lead has to be rock-solid – when they start at “type-A jerk,” there’s work to be done to get us on board. And Henson does just that – she has an easy charm that is undeniably appealing. She makes both the hard edge and the soft center feel genuine, the sort of delicate balance that surprisingly few performers can pull off. Without her, this movie simply won’t work.

The supporting cast is solid as well. Brener is a timid delight as Ali’s assistant. Jones and Greenfield give us a couple of different flavors of d-bag dudebro. The triad of Jones, Robinson and McLendon-Covey are delightful, though a trifle underutilized. Morgan is his usual strange, scenery-chewing self and it’s wonderful. Hodge is used precisely the way the “new relationship” would be used in a traditionally-gendered story, so that’s progress? Richard Roundtree plays Ali’s dad – John Shaft himself.

And of course, numerous athlete cameos – Shaq and Mark Cuban and Lisa Leslie and so on. Oh, and again – BRIAN BOSWORTH IS HERE AND IT’S WEIRD.

“What Men Want” is a perfectly cromulent comedy, the kind of film that makes you chuckle a few times before sending you on your way to basically forget about it by the time you find your car in the parking lot. That’s not a condemnation, by the way – they can’t all be stick-to-your-cortex classics, after all. You won’t walk out quoting this movie, but you’ll probably walk out smiling.

“What Men Want” might not be exactly what YOU want, but it’ll probably do.

[2.5 out of 5]

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