Sunday, June 16, 2024

Taraji P. Henson Holds ‘What Men Want’ Together

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What Men Want is a movie filled with so much heart and talent it rises above flaws that would sink a lesser movie. The movie is less a gender-flipped remake of What Women Want and instead borrows, in spirit, from Liar Liar. The result is an odd misshapen movie that somehow leaves us with a silly grin on our face.

Adam Shankman has one clear talent and that’s recognizing the talent of Taraji P. Henson. Visually speaking, Shankman leaves What Men Want looking ugly and inconsistent. But what he may lack visually, Shankman makes up for in understanding his talent and what works best.

Henson’s Ali is the typical character we would find in the modern romantic comedy. Although normally her character would have to learn a lesson about how her life is incomplete without motherhood or wifehood as an element to it; or be a man. What Women Want merges the two. The movie doesn’t explode the cliche so much as shape it differently for modern times.

The only woman sports agent at a talent agency, she struggles to get ahead. Most romantic comedies have awful selfish, egotistical men whom we have trouble understanding why the woman might be interested in at all. Ali comes dangerously close to this cliche but Henson keeps her from going over the edge. Henson plays Ali with a cyclonic, relentless energy such that everyone else seems to be sleepwalking in comparison.

Ali believes she is about to make partner. She buys a new Porsche in anticipation. Of course, she doesn’t get it. No movie that starts out with a character thinking they will get a promotion has ever actually had them get the promotion before the last act. I’ve always wondered if this is how it works in real life?

Do people really not know if they are getting partner without any warning until a mass meeting of their peers where the boss picks a new partner through some archaic form of eeny, meeny, miny, moe? Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is how it played out in real life. I believe the kids call it late stage capitalism.

Nevertheless, Ali’s father Skip (Richard Roundtree) has raised her to be a fighter. An ex-boxer himself, he owns a gym where Ali goes when things like getting a partnership don’t go her way. The two spar in the ring as Skip repeatedly tells her, “You got to be for yourself because no one else is.”

What Men Want is not subtle overall, but in some ways it is. Women, women of color especially, have to work harder for things that most men are essentially granted. Respect and power being the main two. We not only see, but are told, that Ali brings the most money into the agency. She is fierce because she has to be. The only woman agent in her company, she brags, yells, and trumpets her accomplishments with the best of them.

When she is passed over she is told, “You don’t have any clients in the big three: the NFL, NBA, or the MLB.” In other words, women agents with women clients are good for business but not good for partnership. Ali is so aggressive because she has to be. The movie has a great gag showing how far Ali carries the “be for yourself” teachings of her father.

After meeting a handsome and charming bartender, Will (Aldis Hodge), the two go back to his place for a one night stand. Ali is rough, inconsiderate, and selfish in her lovemaking. It’s one of the better sex scenes I’ve seen in a while. She writhes atop of Will while practically choking him as she bucks wildly about with no regard for his comfort or feelings.

Ali then goes to a bachelorette party with her friends Ciarra (Phoebe Robinson), Mari (Tamala Jones), and Oliva (Wendi McLendon-Covey). We get hints that Ali’s abrasive nature isn’t popular even within her circle of confidants. It’s not Ali’s personality that we begin to notice that isn’t popular, it’s that she doesn’t listen. She hears people but when it comes to the basic act of listening, she bulldozes ahead into any and every situation.

A low-level psychic Sister (Erykah Badu) is invited and proceeds to read fortunes for the ladies. She reads Ali’s fortune, gives her some tea, and later that night Ali hits her head at the club. Waking up in the hospital, she discovers she can read men’s thoughts.

The script by Tina Gordon, Alex Gregory, and Peter Huyck is broad and the characters thin. Surprisingly the trio don’t concern themselves with Ali’s powers outside of using them as a plot device. The movie doesn’t ignore them, but they don’t rely on the sudden psychic abilities quite as much as we would think.

In the beginning, Ali uses her powers to beat her male counterparts at a poker game, a game which just so happens to include Joe Dollar (Tracy Morgan), the father of the next big thing in the NBA, Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie). If Ali could sign Jamal, she could be in line for the next opening for partner. The scene itself doesn’t amount to much except to move the plot along. Though Shaquille O’Neal has a cameo and a fart joke that, while ancient, had me cackling all the same.

The scrapes and situations Ali finds herself in come less from her reading mens’ minds and more from Ali’s impulsiveness and selfishness. When Will shows up with his son to explain the photo of his wife Ali saw was actually his dead wife, Ali presents him to Dollar as her husband and Ben (Auston Jon Moore) as her son. She neglects to inform the two of the parts they are playing so when they discover they are being used as props, their relationship becomes fractured.

Even her relationship with her assistant Brandon (Josh Brener) begins to crumble, but not because of her psychic powers. Brandon finds out about her powers early on and is eager to help Ali utilize them. Brandon and Ali start to drift when she crushes his dream of becoming an agent. In her zeal to be top dog, Ali has formed an ability to know her opponent’s weakness and strike at the heart of their vulnerability. Brandon isn’t an opponent though and Ali begins to realize she sometimes can’t tell the difference between friend or foe.

Brandon is gay. Refreshingly his gayness isn’t a punchline. Brandon and Ali are in an elevator when they are joined by her hunky neighbor. The two debate whether or not he is gay or straight. The scene itself is a tad forced but Henson and Brener sell it well enough.

The important thing is that What Men Wants has the audacity to suppose that not everyone is straight. Yes, many movies have gay characters, but most of them still operate under the assumption that all characters are straight until proven gay. What Men Want has the audacity to have gay characters littered throughout the movie both out and closeted. Shankman himself is out and it explains why Ali, though she has the power, never publicly outs any character. She tells Brandon that Danny (Pete Davidson), one of his friends, is gay and has a crush on him and that’s it.

If not for Henson’s Jerry Lewis-like zeal, all of this would collapse into a pile of mundane rubble. But Henson doesn’t just sell the premise, she buys it, invests in it, and sells it back to us at double the price. At her friend’s wedding, she gets drunk and decides to use her power for good, or Ali’s version of good. She interrupts the vows and begins to air gossip and affairs into the public forum.

The scene is a broad force and Shankman has the camera in almost every spot but the right one. But Shankman is no fool, he knows that Henson is the glue, and so always remembers to cut back to her. She propels her body forward like a runaway freight train in heels. Bryce Dallas Howard once outran a T-Rex in heels but I’m not sure she could outrun Taraji.

What Men Want is a bit of a mess, I won’t sugar coat it. But it has heart and despite it being a Hollywood movie, is sincere. Richard Roundtree has a lovely scene where he apologizes to his daughter for raising her as he did. It’s a wonderful moment because Skip realizes the truths he has held so close to his heart may not be so true after all.

Aldis Hodge is a charming actor who somehow is able to keep up with Henson’s manic and fireball delivery. A calm cool glass of water next to Henson’s raging hurricane. Will is a nice man and a good father. Hodge has an appealing earnestness about him. He is able to sell Will’s sincerity which is a rare and priceless talent.

What Men Want is one of those romantic comedies that spends its run time constantly on thin ice. It has just enough story to propel the movie forward but not enough to sustain every scene. The look of the film is drab and lifeless with no real character either in editing or framing. But Shankman knows he has Henson, trusts the rest of his cast, and knows enough to get out of their way. In some ways, that’s a talent in and of itself.

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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