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If You Could Read My Mind

Taraji P. Henson
Taraji P. Henson
Paramount Pictures
 117 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Adam Shankman
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Aldis Hodge   
What Men Want

Hollywood remakes never go out of style, but the latest trend seems to be the gender-reversed remake, in which films featuring male actors get a makeover and emerge with female leads. In the last three years, we’ve seen Ghostbusters, Ocean’s Eight, and Overboard, and later this spring, there’s The Hustle, a reworking of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with con artistes of the fairer sex (one of whom, Anne Hathaway, took part in Ocean\s Eight as well). So, it comes as no surprise that the popular 2000 Mel Gibson romantic comedy, What Women Want, now becomes What Men Want, a film that struggles to get past some rough patches thanks to the tireless (and sometimes tiresome) efforts of its lead, Taraji P. Henson.


The premise of both the Gibson and Henson films is the same. Following a freak accident, the lead character develops the ability to read the minds of the opposite sex. But while Gibson was a typical Alpha male sex hound, pretty much like, well, Mel Gibson, Henson’s struggle isn’t to find ways to add more notches to her bedpost but to break through the glass ceiling. Henson plays Ali Davis, the only female agent at an Atlanta sports marketing firm. Even though she’s sharper and just as ruthless as her male colleagues, she can’t get promoted to partner because she supposedly can’t land the big male client because she doesn’t understand men.


All of that changes when Ali goes to a bachelorette party for a friend and visits a psychic (Erykah Badu) who gives Ali some “medicinal” herbs. The drugs plus a knock on the head send Ali to the hospital where she discovers she can now read men’s thoughts. This discovery shocks both Ali and her assistant Brandon (Josh Brener), as the clip below indicates. But, after the shock wears off, Ali realizes that she can use her newfound ability to get ahead in business.


Ali’s goal is to land star college basketball player Jamal Berry (Shane Paul McGhie), whom every agent in the firm is chasing. She first crashes the guys’ weekly poker party, where Jamal’s father, Joe Dolla (Tracy Morgan) is playing and schmoozes him just enough to get invited to attend an NBA game with him and his son. But when she learns that Joe wants to do business with someone who understands the importance of family, Ali claims that a recent date, one-night-stand nice-guy Will (Aldis Hodge), is really her husband and talks Will and his son into attending the game with her as her family. Naturally, when Will figures out how he’s been used, he doesn’t take it well, and Ali begins to realize that her drive to succeed, fueled by her new-found abilities, comes with a considerable cost.


Both What Women Want and What Men Want have somewhat of a feminist message at heart, although the more recent movie is shaped to a considerable extent by workplace developments in the last few years. Both Mel Gibson’s character and Ali in the current film are selfish jerks at the start of the film; the only difference is that Ali has a legitimate grievance and is just using her power to level the playing field to a certain extent. The idea that Ali is actually the wronged party here results in a message that’s even more muddled than that of the first movie.


Since What Men Want is a romantic comedy of sorts, director Adam Shankman and the team of screenwriters try to have their cake and eat it too. Ali simultaneously learns life lessons of her own about being a better boss, co-worker, friend, and potential girlfriend, while, at the same time teaches the good old boy network at her agency a thing or two as well. The effort required to pull all of this off results in some complete whipsawing of supporting characters, especially Aldis Hodge as Will. Hodge becomes a human punching bag for Ali’s various mood and character swings and does quite well in a really thankless supporting role.


The biggest victim of the script is Taraji P. Henson herself. She has to play Ali as a tough, manipulative bitch half the time and suitably vulnerable and apologetic the rest of the time. It’s possible that in some alternate reality version of this movie, she could pull this feat off, but she and Shankman decide to maximize the comic nature of her nastiness. As a result, Ali plays more like a professional version of Cookie from Empire, with an emphasis on physical humor. Watching Henson in bed with Hodge is like watching a horny aerobics instructor in overdrive. Those scenes work, but, alas, other instances of Ali’s bitchiness wear thin fairly quickly.


The biggest failing of What Men Want is its failure to capitalize on its central premise adequately. What do the men in this movie think about? Well, bedding women for one (and two and three and more), or, in some cases bedding other men. They also think about bodily functions far too much. And they think about traditionally male-oriented trivialities like sports and video games. So that’s what Ali gets to overhear and react to dozens of times during the movie. At first, the premise itself is amusing, as is the contrast between the men’s expressions and what they are thinking. But, as the movie goes on, the script can’t come up with enough new variations on that theme to keep it interesting.


What Men Want has a framework with enough good material to make about three entertaining films. The scenes that work are often quite good. Badu is a riot whenever she is onscreen, and Henson’s efforts pay off more often than not. Best of all, however, are the more serious scenes, such as anytime Henson interacts with the too-seldom-seen Richard Roundtree, who plays her father. I have a feeling that a version of this movie that completely ditched the mind-reading gimmick in favor of a more straightforward workplace rom-com might have been more successful.


But of course, critics and audiences react to the movie that was made, not the one that could have been made. And the film that was made misfires just a bit too often, especially a sequence that culminates in a fight in a church that disrupts a wedding. I’ve lost track of how many times that’s shown up onscreen in recent months, and it’s never as funny as the filmmakers think. Similarly, What Men Want isn’t quite as funny as the filmmakers think it is. What viewers want is a movie that fares a bit better as either comedy or romantic drama, rather then what they get here.

In this clip, Josh Brener realizes that Taraji P. Henson can read his mind.

Read other reviews of What Men Want: 

What Men Want (2019) on IMDb