Some critics have wondered whether or not audiences can watch What Men Want without having seen What Women Want. Despite the evident truth that Nancy Meyers is an auteur, you can watch her version of the story in your own time. I’ve seen both the trailer and one minute of it. Loretta Devine is in it, playing an unimpressed door woman repressing her desire for Mel Gibson. And that’s kind of the crux of that film, that women repress both their desire and intellect.
Women is about Gibson’s character trying to woo Helen Hunt’s character, who wants him back but can’t express it out of politeness. Reading a woman’s mind, therefore, is a way to her bed. Men‘s stakes are higher especially for Ali Davis (Taraji P. Henson), the best sports agent in Atlanta who will never make partner because she’s a black woman. But if she gets into the male psyche, she can achieve the financial positions that men often get.
What Men Want has one big burden – that an important element here is the male psyche, which is inherently obnoxious. I write that as a man who writes about movies about women. Anyway, there are often voice-overs of the thoughts that Ali can hear. That’s because she drank a tea that a psychic, Sister (Erykah Badu) made for her. Most of these thoughts are sexual, and it’s true that that’s what men want. Nonetheless, this movie leans too heavily into that obnoxiousness.
The comedy here is, obviously, broad. The tea, which has double meanings here, is only one part that helps her get the powers. Another is a head injury, one of the many physical gags that Henson and her fellow cast members get into. Henson goes all out for these scenes, a thing she can do here and not in the dramatic films she’ll star in soon. That said, there is still something humiliating about watching her get into mishaps of the physical kind.
Admittedly, there’s some genuine humor in the variation of the man’s one track mind. Most of the thoughts Ali hears are from her assistant Brandon Wallace (Josh Brener), who is gay and wants to be an agent like her. The movie has an interesting use of her power to read male minds. One of those minds is the other gay man in the office who is in the closet (Pete Davidson). She can get into the thoughts of all the gay men in her proximity, an ability that most gay men don’t have or care to have.
Similarly, this movie tries to show how straight men don’t understand each other, those misunderstandings occurring across racial lines. There’s a scene where Ali has to intervene after another agent, Kevin Myrtle (Max Greenfield), presents a racist power point presentation to the agency’s new white whale, Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie). But her holy grail of an intervention could have happened without her power to read men’s minds.
And after all of that, will Ali get what she wants from these men? Another thing that What Men Want is good at is the transactional relationships between genders, sexual orientations, and races. And her insight exposes the troubling aspect of these transactions. People of all genders walk around pretending that they’re content. But we all know how untrue that is, we’re unsatisfied with ourselves and with other men, and that that discontent puts women as collateral damage.
Nonetheless, the burden of fantasy films like this is that it will never think of everything. Power has limits. Ali might know what’s in the mind of Jamal. Or what’s in the volatile mind of Jamal’s outspoken father Joe ‘Dolla’ (Tracy Morgan). But is obtaining that insight going to help in getting Jamal to sign to Ali’s agency, or will she bend over backwards for them and get nothing? She could literally do everything and not get Jamal as a client due to factors that are beyond her or Jamal’s control.
There’s another thing about what men want and the woman who will deliver whatever that is. Service positions run the gamut from a minimum wage worker to heads of the government. And they are all under the ire of the fickle population they serve. Ali is in the high middle of that spectrum, earning six figure salaries to cater to the whims of mostly young men. That said the optics of a black woman in a service position is dicey, despite of everything.
Perhaps there’s an inherent unfairness in the dynamics between gender and race that What Men Want inadvertently touch on. Ali can get Brandon’s friendship, Jamal as a client, and a romantic interest (Aldis Hodge). She can get all of that and still lose because she’s a black woman in a society that favors white men. Surely, a fluffy comedy can’t have a concrete solution to her problems. And this movie’s attempts to solve her flight feels spectacularly and disappointingly hollow.