Can you imagine hearing the thoughts of everyone you meet? Imagine knowing every secret, lie, or idea someone around you had. Ali Davis knows that feeling after hitting her head in a club and waking up with the ability to hear thoughts. To make matters weirder, Ali realizes that she can only hear the thoughts of men. Ali sees this as a curse the moment she realizes it. She doesn’t want to suffer hearing every sexual remark or gross joke that runs through the male brain. Ali wants this ability gone until realizing that she now wields power over the men in her life. She’s now one step ahead in the male dominated sports industry that she works in. Not to mention that she can now satisfy any man she desires however they want. Everything sounds like it’d go smoothly for her – but things get crazy quickly.
First, Taraji P. Henson has played charismatic characters before, just look at Cookie on Fox’s Empire. I don’t think Henson has ever had a role that required as much pure energy as What Men Want. She chews the scenery every second she’s on camera, going for every joke with all of her might. She’s never afraid to be bold, raunchy, or eccentric as Ali Davis. She’s fearless here, a performer who knows that the screen is hers to own. There are plenty of jokes here, but only hers hit with enough force to make you laugh out loud.
Ali is a very busy woman and this is a very busy movie. There’s a pretty wide cast of characters for a midrange comedy movie. You’ve got her awkward assistant Brandon (Josh Brener) who she spends the majority of her time with. There’s also her father, her girl friends, a psychic, her coworkers, her love interest and his son. This is a lot of people for a pretty self-contained story that centers solely on Ali. I’d like to say that the film balances all of the characters well, but I would be lying.
Ali has four supposedly close friends in this movie. They’re all played by fun, charming actresses but their characters never leave a real impression. Given only fleeting moments to say a joke or two, they all serve as a mechanism to get her to talk to a psychic and go to the club where she hits her head. They’re plot devices that feel like an outlier throughout the film. This is a problem that plagues almost every other character in the movie.
Will, Ali’s love interest, is about as cookie cutter a romantic lead as you can get in a film. Lacking any depth, he’s just a nice guy with no personality. Her father pops up a couple of times to give her emotional speeches and pep talks but there isn’t much to him either. The men in her office are all just stereotypical jerks, any hints at actual characterization (whether it be negative or positive) is mostly absent. Even the wacky psychic, Sister (played by singer Erykah Badu) has no purpose in the movie. Ali suspects Sister caused her mind reading abilities but we find out that is definitively the head bump that caused them. Sister isn’t even a plot device, just an excuse to let Erykah Badu have a cameo. Tracy Morgan is basically just being himself here, almost seeming unscripted and that he’s saying whatever comes to his mind.
The only character that work in this film is Brandon. Although he is just Ali’s assistant, she spends more time with him than anyone else here. She doesn’t see much in him, he’s just her gay employee (who she claims isn’t fabulous or a real man at one point). He struggles to prove his value to her throughout most of the film. It’s an interesting reflection of her dilemma with her own colleagues at the agency. She can’t get them to see her as more than the token black girl, and he feels like her token gay nerd. The dynamic evolves in interesting ways and I would describe their relationship as the heart of the film. It provides an emotional center that none of the other storylines have. Watching Henson and Brener play off each other is both hilarious and moving. The film would fall apart without the pair.
The script can be fun and at times brimming with vivacious humor. Great jokes are littered throughout the film, along with several duds. I’d say about a quarter are hilarious, a quarter are worth a smile, and fifty percent fall completely flat. The writers seemed to have taken a quantity over quality approach to writing this script. I would also say the writing and direction are both a bit confused. The film at times seems to be about a woman fighting for power in a male dominated space. Then it seems to be about a woman learning that she causes the men around her to be jerks. Then it seems the writers wanted a painfully generic romantic comedy. Finally, the writers just kind of stuffed all three together into the noisy, overstuffed third act.
What Men Want isn’t a failure by any means, it just isn’t nearly as good as it should have been with the talent present here. The very game Henson deserves a better script and stronger direction to work with. If this movie had trimmed down some of the characters or fleshed them out to add more believability, it could have been a triumph. It’s too noisy, unfocused, and long, making it an only somewhat memorable raunchy comedy. It’s a fine film to turn on if you see it on cable, but it’s not something strong enough to seek out. Here’s to hoping the next mind-reading rom-com gets it completely right.