We’ve already had gender-swapped remakes of Ghostbusters and Ocean’s 11 – one way at least of making more female-led films – so which one’s next? There’s plenty to choose from after all, and the next in line is What Women Want, the Mel Gibson/Helen Hunt comedy from 2000. Except this time the title’s been flipped to What Men Want. Neat.
In case you don’t remember the plot from the original, Gibson was the archetypal chauvinist who suddenly acquired the ability to hear what women were thinking – and it wasn’t always to his advantage. The idea behind this loose re-boot/re-make – or however you’d like to describe it because it’s a bit of both – is more or less the same. This time Ali (Taraji P Henson) finds herself able to hear what men are thinking, which means she hears an awful lot of macho chat because she works in a male-dominated sports agency. She’s passed over for a big promotion she knows she deserves, so goes all out to net the biggest client looking for new representation. And her uncanny ability to “read the minds” of her colleagues and potential clients turns out to be very useful – until she discovers the downside.
The result is an uneven comedy, driven by Henson’s star power. The laughs are sprinkled thinly: when they do come, they’re the real thing, not just giggles, the best one being a reference to a Jordan Peele film, which produced the loudest laugh by far. But “thinly” is the word: there’s just too few of them and it produces a lumpy, variable tone. The film doesn’t wholly know what it wants to do – entertain or take a wry look at equality, both gender and racial – so it throws a bit of everything into the pot and what emerges is a mish-mash. And, just to make sure nobody can accuse it of not being diverse enough, Ali’s assistant is gay – but no more than a familiar caricature, which is another wasted opportunity.
So when do those all-important laughs show themselves? There’s a cracking bust-up at a wedding, but a recurring gag in the form of a psychic – part Blithe Spirit’s Madame Arcati, part Ghost’s Whoopi Goldberg – played by Erykah Badu is easily the most successful. She persuades Ali to drink some special tea which plays a crucial part in her acquiring her new powers. Badu is a hoot every time she appears, lifting the film each time just when it threatens to sag under its weight of its own indecision. There’s a fun turn from Tracy Morgan as the father of a young sports star, but Taraji P Henson has the big job, that of carrying the film. She delivers her customary sassy performance – big, brash but engaging and one that she’s perfected over her past few films. And it’s eminently watchable, even if you feel you’ve seen it all before.
The trouble with What Men Want is that it could have done more with the material and been funny. Correction: it could have been even funnier. As it is, it’s an average comedy which benefits from an above average leading lady. Henson is probably the only thing you’ll remember about the film because, half an hour after the credits have rolled, everything else will have simply dissolved. I can’t say from personal experience whether the film is what men want, but somehow I doubt that women will welcome it with open arms.
Freda Cooper | [rating=2]
Comedy | Cert: 15 | UK, 15 March (2019) | Paramount Pictures | Dir. Adam Shankman | Taraji P Henson, Richard Roundtree, Josh Brener, Aldis Hodge, Tracy Morgan, Erykah Badu.