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Front Page - Friday, February 15, 2019

Critic's Corner: What does this man want? Better writing, fewer cheap laughs

In the 2000 comedy “What Women Want,” Mel Gibson plays Nick, a womanizer who acquires the ability to hear women’s thoughts. This teaches him that members of the opposite sex are not prey to be pursued or prizes to be won, but emotionally complex, intelligent human beings who have more to offer the world than their beauty.

In “What Men Want,” the gender-flipped 2019 remake of the Gibson hit, Taraji Henson plays Ali, a woman who involuntarily acquires the ability to hear men’s thoughts. This confirms what she already knows: Men are pigs.

Ali is surrounded by swine. As the only female sports agent at a firm run by men, she’s subjected to every indignity one can imagine the writers of this witless comedy (all seven of them, according to IMDB) thinking up: Ali’s co-workers brag about their sexual conquests, tell dirty jokes, fart, behave like cavemen, etc.

Worse, this cluster of Cro-Magnons has formed an impenetrable boys club that’s made it impossible for Ali to become a partner at the firm. In one of the film’s rare insightful moments, she intercepts a pass thrown to a new male partner, thinking it was intended for her.

There is some balance in “What Men Wants.” Ali’s shelters in this typhoon of testosterone are her gay assistant and a bartender who’s not only insanely handsome but also a thoughtful, sensitive single father. (Can anyone guess which role he plays? Anyone?)

Part of the fun of watching “What Women Want” is seeing how reading women’s minds opened Nick’s understanding of the opposite sex in humorous ways. So, it’s disappointing when Ali gains the ability to read men’s minds and discovers they’re actually dumber than they come across.

“I smell toast! Am I having a stroke?” ponders Tracy Morgan’s character at a poker party. “Oh, wait, I have toast in my pocket.” Eye roll.

Having failed to do anything meaningful with the film’s hook, the writers decided to let Ali use her gift to get ahead in her profession. By reading men’s minds, she’ll know precisely what the most prized client in her business – a rising basketball star – wants. And, once she signs him, her firm will make her a partner.

Once it’s clear that “What Men Want” is more concerned with plot than revelation, it becomes a paint-by-numbers affair, with all the expected twists and turns. I’m sure you could recite the rest of the story based on what I’ve written so far.

All that said, “What Men Want” is not a complete waste of time, thanks to Henson, who infuses the film with fun and infectious energy. Her performance is frequently over the top and even silly, but she’s rarely unfunny.

Even during Henson’s goofiest moments – including the one where she beds the bartender like a predator tearing into fresh kill and then rolls over and starts snoring – I found myself chuckling.

Some of the other actors have their moments, too, but it’s Henson who saves “What Men Want” from being a complete wash. She’s not going to win an Oscar for her performance, but I liked her, I really liked her.

I did not, however, like Erykah Badu, who plays the psychic who gives Ali her strange ability. What a ridiculous performance. Director Adam Shankman gave Badu a lot of rein, and the actress used it poorly, injecting her scripted lines with outbursts of inane improv and unnecessary profanity, all of which she directs at an invisible presence that’s presumably speaking to her.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one at the screening I attended who felt this way. Viewers who were in stitches for most of the movie were silent during Badu’s scenes. Fortunately, Badu isn’t in the film enough to dilute the good Henson does.

Speaking of unnecessary profanity, the large number of f-bombs in “What Men Want” surprised me. I don’t object to cursing in films, but it feels out of place in “What Men Want,” which is otherwise a lighthearted, feel-good comedy. Tonally, it was a poor choice.

In the end, if you can stomach a shallow concept, a predictable story and a lot of silliness – and if you’re a fan of Henson – then you might like “What Men Want.” It’s no classic, but for some of my fellow viewers, it was clearly a good time.