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Sunday, February 10, 2019

What Men Want

I'm starting to think that it's time we label a new genre in Hollywood romantic comedies, which I like to call "the Magical Head Injury Comedy".  In less than a year, we will have had three examples of it, and they all seem to follow the same basic structure.  They start out with a woman who is unsuccessful at work and relationships, but suddenly she gets conked on the head, and suddenly she develops some kind of magical ability or magical side effect which gives her the ability to get ahead.  The woman enjoys this for a while, but she eventually becomes conceited or selfish.  She begins to lose her trusted girlfriends, it threatens her relationship with her new man, and the woman eventually learns that she does not need the abilities that the Magical Head Injury have granted her, and that she was wonderful the way she was before.

We saw this plot back in April of last year in I Feel Pretty, where Amy Schumer got knocked on the head, and suddenly saw herself as beautiful, instead of the average woman she was.  We'll be seeing it again next weekend in Isn't It Romantic, where Rebel Wilson hits her head, and suddenly finds herself in a cliched romantic comedy setting. (I have not seen it, but I assume it will somewhat follow the structure I listed above.  Hopefully it surprises me, or at least is funny and charming enough to work.) This weekend, we have What Men Want, which features Taraji P. Henson in a gender-flipped reworking of the 2000 Mel Gibson comedy, What Women Want.  That was the movie where Gibson played a chauvinistic pig who gained the ability to hear what women were thinking, and could finally realize what they thought of him.  With Henson in the lead, gaining the ability to hear what men are thinking, she comes across as a comedic live wire, with energy and spirit to burn.  Unfortunately, the movie itself is stalled almost right from the beginning, and just isn't that funny.

Henson plays Ali Davis, a tough-as-nails Atlanta sports agent who has been trying to make it in a mostly male-dominated profession for several years.  She's gone pretty far, and is respected by many of her peers, but then her pig-headed boss (Brian Bosworth) passes her over for the big promotion of being a partner in the company, which she thought she was going to get, and gives it to another guy.  Ali is the hard-drinking, hard-living type who browbeats her gay assistant, Brandon (Josh Brenner), has sex with multiple men like she is keeping score, and usually neglects her three best girlfriends.  It is those friends who end up taking her to a bizarre psychic named Sister (Erykah Badu, giving a go-for-broke performance), who has Ali drink some funky herbal tea.  It is a combination of the tea, plus Ali falling and knocking herself on the head while she's out partying afterward, that suddenly gifts her with the ability to hear what any man is thinking.

Unfortunately, director Adam Shankman (Rock of Ages) and the three credited screenwriters never go as far as they should with this idea.  According to this movie, the deepest thing that men ever think about is stuff like "I would tap that", or "Micheal Keaton was the best Batman".  It keeps on promising big revelations and insights into the male psyche, but it simply never delivers, and instead goes for tired old gags.  It recycles almost the exact same kind of gags from an almost 20-year-old movie, and doesn't bother to freshen them up for today's current climate of men and women in the workforce.  So, we have Henson in the lead role, giving everything she has, and basically powering through the entire movie like a force of nature.  Meanwhile, the movie itself gives off a much more lethargic vibe that never connects with her performance, creating an imbalance from which the film never overcomes.

There are two main plots that the film revolves around.  One is Ali trying to sign a rising young basketball star named Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie), which is easier said than done since his dominating father (Tracy Morgan) pretty much controls every aspect of his son's career, and is not interested in a female agent, or an agent who doesn't have a family, since family is everything to him.  Ali uses her new ability to hear men's thoughts to win the dad's trust, and hopefully sign over Jamal, which would help her make partner.  Again, there's a lot of wasted potential here at satirizing the sports world.  When the corporate bozos at her sports agency show Jamal a potential commercial they have thrown together to help advertise him, the commercial is so over the top in its awfulness, it's not funny.  I understand, the point is that it's supposed to be over the top and terrible, but it's overkill.  There's no way anyone would think it was a good idea, or that it could be played on television in this day and age.  The movie should have been clever in poking fun at how sports celebrities are advertised and marketed, and instead the movie goes to such an extreme that it overshoots.

The other main plot, a romantic subplot concerning a widowed single dad named Will (Aldis Hodge) who teaches Ali what a relationship can be beyond sex, is not that interesting either.  Sure, Henson and Hodge have some chemistry up on the screen, but their relationship has been written in such a safe and generic way that they never excite.  Will is simply there to throw a cute kid into the mix with his young son, and adds little else.  That's really this movie's whole problem.  It's safe, sanitized, and crowd-pleasing.  I thought that since the film was rated-R, it would at least try to tackle some serious or tricky issues about men and women in our current culture.  Turns out the rating is only for a lot of "F-bombs" thrown into the dialogue, and a few sex scenes that don't even raise the heat of the audience.  Take those away, and this could have been your garden variety PG-13 romantic comedy that leaves your mind as soon as you walk out of the theater. 

There is one moment in What Men Want that hints at what the movie could have been.  It's a scene late in the film, where Henson's boss stops short of firing her because he's worried about what the "Me Too" movement would think.  This scene works, because it seems truthful and it's actually kind of stinging.  It shows the direction that the screenplay should have gone, instead of relying on old cliches.  Overall, Henson is game, but the movie is afraid to join her and go all the way.

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