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What Men Want, starring Taraji P. Henson, is even less insightful than the movie it’s based on

The gender-swapped remake of 2000’s What Women Want wastes the opportunity to reassess the original.

Taraji P. Henson stars in What Men Want, a gender-swapped version of the 2000 rom-com classic.
Taraji P. Henson stars in What Men Want, a gender-swapped version of the 2000 rom-com.
Jess Miglio/Paramount
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Want to feel old? What Women Want, the hit rom-com in which Mel Gibson wears his polo shirts tucked into his pleated pants and learns that women have feelings too, is now 19 years old.

That apparently means it’s time for a reboot. And that’s how we got What Men Want, a gender-flipped remake with Taraji P. Henson in the lead role.

On paper, there’s a measure of sense to this — or at least more than just another entry in the glut of gender-swapped remakes that have been announced in the years since the 2016 Ghostbusters sequel. What Women Want is about gender.

What Women Want wasn’t very insightful about either men or women, but theoretically, a flipped reboot could have both been very entertaining and shed some light on the former in hindsight.

What Men Want, alas, only fulfills half of this potential. It’s a diverting comedy with funny performances. But if you’re looking for it to deliver on its title, move along.

What Men Want follows the beats of its predecessor, but in a sports agency

The crux of What Men Want, as in What Women Want, is a premise half-lifted from A Christmas Carol: What if a bad person has a life-changing supernatural experience and realizes they should be good instead? In Charles Dickens’s story, Scrooge was visited by three spirits, who showed him things he could never have known on his own. That included his acquaintances’ and employees’ opinions of him, which shake him to his core and turn him into a generous man.

In What Men Want, Scrooge — er, Ali (Henson) — is visited instead by the temporary ability to hear men’s thoughts, after ingesting what she’s assured is “tea” served up by a psychic (Erykah Badu) at her friend’s bachelorette party. (“I thought black people stopped drinking tea after Get Out!” her assistant exclaims when she tells him the next day.)

Ali in the conference room with her colleagues.
Ali in the conference room with her colleagues.
Jess Miglio/Paramount

Hearing men’s thoughts turns out to be a handy skill for Ali, a hardworking sports agent. She’s the only woman in a workplace full of men, and she was passed over for a partnership she knows she deserves just hours before the tea incident. In this universe, Ali represents an elite slate of athletes, with Serena Williams among her clients, but even that is not enough to qualify her for partnership at her agency, since she doesn’t rep anyone from the “big three” sports leagues: NBA, NFL, and MLB. When she demands an explanation from her boss, he says that the agency is a “meritocracy,” that Ali doesn’t “connect with men,” and that she should “stay in her lane” and focus on representing women — which, of course, would mean she’ll never rep anyone in the big three.

Livid, but undeterred, Ali decides she’s going to go after the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick, a Georgia Tech player named Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie), whose career is managed by his helicopter dad (Tracy Morgan). Then she goes to the bachelorette party where the psychic serves her tea. And suddenly, her ability to hear men’s thoughts is both driving her crazy and proving very useful, not just in her quest to sign Jamal but also in her budding relationship with a hot bartender named Will (Aldis Hodge).

It’s a clever premise, and Henson (who also served as executive producer on the film) is a force of nature. Entertaining cameos from sports-world personalities like Mark Cuban, Shaquille O’Neal, Grant Hill, and Devonta Freeman lend an air of authenticity. And while the story is predictable — literally predictable, since its beats are more or less lifted from What Women Want — a film centered on Ali rather than a womanizing boor has its charms.

But that’s not to say it’s a superior film.

Like A Christmas Carol, 2000’s What Women Want is, in essence, an old-fashioned morality tale. Its moral conclusions are basically pablum — “you should be nice to women, who are also people, like you and your buddies” — but the central character goes through a believable transformation because, once he’s forced to listen to women, he learns to listen to women. (It’s a metaphor!)

What Men Want, though, shows all the signs of having been shoved along the studio comedy manufacturing belt 19 years later, and the result is the movie has even less to say than its predecessor.

What Men Want doesn’t give its protagonist space to grow

From a storytelling perspective, the problem with What Men Want is that Ali doesn’t have very far to go. She starts out as kind of a ball-buster who’s inattentive and dismissive to her assistant (Josh Brener), and she tends to think only about herself. (This is chiefly demonstrated by a sex scene in which she is more concerned with her own pleasure than her partner’s.)

These are character flaws, to be sure, but not on the level of Mel Gibson’s character Nick in What Women Want, who has ignored his teenage daughter for 15 years, openly harasses the women in his office, tries to kiss his ex-wife on the mouth at her own wedding, attempts to sabotage his boss basically because he thinks she doesn’t deserve the job, and is generally a clearly lousy dude. All of that means there’s a lot of room for his character to grow, even in very small steps.

Josh Brener and Taraji P. Henson in What Men Want.
Josh Brener and Taraji P. Henson in What Men Want.
Jess Giglio/Paramount

Nick is motivated by some combination of overconfidence and insecurity, a lot of which What Women Want blames on his Vegas showgirl mother. But I suspect that What Men Want’s filmmakers were so concerned with making Ali “likable” — the roguish quality rarely plays well for female characters — that they took out most of what would have made her a character in need of redemption in the first place.

Ali has a loving father with whom she has a good relationship and is mainly motivated by ambition. She’s more hapless than bad, more assertive than abrasive. What she learns from listening to men’s thoughts is that they’re more emotional than they let on, and that she should probably lighten up on some of them to become a slightly better, less prickly person, while also standing up for herself. It feels weird, like some kind of cross between morality tale and go-girl Hollywood empowerment flick.

And I can’t say I’m surprised. What Men Want was always going to be hard to write for 2019, with cinematic depictions of women having changed drastically in the past 19 years. So the film opts for the lowest common denominator, going light on the gendered aspects of the story and leaning too heavily on set pieces and jokes. It is exactly what most studio comedies have taught us to expect from a night out at the movies: a few laughs, a few lightly moralistic slogans, nothing terribly offensive, and, ultimately, a forgettable film that capitalizes on a hit we half-remember from years ago.

What Men Want opens in theaters on February 8, 2019.