Mel Gibson was still a beloved Hollywood megastar when he co-starred with Helen Hunt in “What Women Want” (2000). The film had all the depth of a “Bewitched” episode, but it was still a funny and likable piece of mind-reading screwball-kitsch fizziness. (It became one of Gibson’s biggest hits, grossing $182 million.) The lady-killer hero, who gets conked on the head and begins to read women’s thoughts, had a whole lot to absorb about what tough, sharp, enlightened human beings women really are. That seemed a perfect lesson for Mel Gibson, even before he fell from grace, to be learning.
Flipping the genders of this idea feels like a natural, except for one small detail. In “What Men Want,” Taraji P. Henson, all sparkly vivacity and italicized ambition, plays an Atlanta sports agent who’s the only woman in an office full of second-rate Jerry-Maguire-meets-Ari-Gold high-roller wannabes. The premise of “What Women Want” was that women are smarter and better than men believe; the premise of “What Men Want” is that men are even more in thrall to their egos and appetites than women fear. As stereotypes go, I don’t find that one objectionable (or, for the most part, untrue), but it holds a distinct disadvantage as comedy.
The thoughts that get read by Henson’s Ali Davis, after she’s passed over for a promotion to partner and gets conked on the head herself, merely confirm what she, and the audience, have already been shown: that men are dogs, and not to be trusted. With her pitch-perfect psychic powers, she’s privy to strategic gambits by her rivals that let her maneuver to the front of the pack in the race to sign Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie), a beaming young basketball star who’s angling to go pro. But the thoughts she overhears don’t, for the most part, have the snap of comic surprise. They just fill in the walking alpha blanks we already know.
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The funnier bits — I dare say, the only funny ones — are the routines around the edges, like the flaked-out inner monologues of Ali’s assistant, Brandon (Josh Brener), who looks like a harmless 14-year-old uber-geek but is, in fact, a highly capable sports fanatic who longs to be an agent. Pete Davidson, in an unbilled role, plays the office doofus who’s got a secret crush on him, and when Ali overhears their thoughts it’s like a new genre: the down-low telepathic romcom. Part of what leads to Ali’s powers is the spiked tea she’s served by a psychic, played by Erykah Badu, who is made up to look like a New Age witch and throws out her lines like tauntingly improvised knuckleballs. (The movie’s end-credit outtakes are devoted to her.)
But the script of “What Men Want,” by Tina Gordon, Peter Hyuck, and Alex Gregory, is a hodgepodge that always feels like it’s scrambling to cover enough quadrants. Ali falls for a smooth bartender, Will (Aldis Hodge), a widowed single father as saintly as he is sexy. She ends up using Will and his six-year-old son, Ben (Auston Jon Moore), without their knowledge, as her pretend family, because Jamal’s father, played by Tracy Morgan, doesn’t trust a woman without a family. This gambit of hers makes sense, in a connect-the-dots triumphing-over-sexism way, but it doesn’t bring the movie much levity; it’s a generic romantic-comedy mix-up. And while Morgan’s skewed irascibility is always welcome, you wish the movie gave him a reason to lurch into even higher dudgeon.
At the center of “What Women Want,” Taraji P. Henson is a blazing ball of compressed energy with a touch of ruthless corporate ‘tude. Her Ali is trying to scheme her way to the top of a male ladder, and the performance is nearly as single-minded as Ali is. But maybe that’s because when it comes to what Ali has to learn about the male animal through mind reading, she’s got nowhere to go but down.