What Men Want
“What Men Want never reaches for lazy stereotypes to garner its many laughs.”
Title: What Men Want (2019)
Director: Adam Shankman 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈
Writers: Story by Jas Waters 👩🏾🇺🇸 and Tina Gordon Chism 👩🏾🇺🇸 and screenplay by Tina Gordon Chism 👩🏾🇺🇸, Peter Huyck 👨🏼🇺🇸, and Alex Gregory 👨🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
I should have known better than to trust aggregate review sites! I let an eye-wincing score on Rotten Tomatoes deter me from watching What Men Want on opening weekend. But then I caught The Movie Brutha’s take and he pointedly challenges the film’s unfavorable reviews, reminding me that if I could sit through Proud Mary (2018) and still enjoy it thanks to Taraji P. Henson’s pure magnetism, how bad could her latest be?
As it turns out, not bad at all, as I thoroughly enjoyed this silly comedy. Does it break the mold? Of course not. It riffs off of Mel Gibson’s What Women Want (2000) and gender-swaps the plot, making appropriate adjustments along the way. Spin-offs like this seldom produce artistic epiphanies, but if done well they’re usually worth a fun night at the movies.
That's exactly what What Men Want provides. An electric protagonist, strong acting by a solid supporting cast, some genuine moments, and a helluva lot of laughs are all good reasons for why this movie belongs on your radar.
Although directed by Adam Shankman, women come in force through writers Jas Waters and Tina Gordon Chism. In addition, What Men Want is anchored by Henson’s Ali Davis, a career-obsessed sports agent who has become selfish in her unwavering quest to “win” at all costs.
Ali’s rehabilitation provides the central plot, ensuring that the film stays wholly focused on a woman’s narrative. Where things slip, however, is the fact that she's largely surrounded by men. Ali’s growth occurs through her relationships with male coworkers, male clients, a male love interest who has a young son, and even through her primary support—her single father.
Writers do make a clear effort to include girlfriends as a secondary support system. But a large cast elbows out this subplot, resulting in friendships that feel unconvincing. Unlike the ironclad chemistry between the women of, say, Girls Trip (2017) or an earlier Henson film, Hidden Figures (2017), Shankman’s film merely pantomimes female friendship.
Add to the fact that only a handful of scenes pass the Bechdel Test, What Men Want ultimately feels beholden to its title. This is a movie about how Ali taps into “what men want” as a means of finding out how to grow and develop herself as an adult. Relationships with other women exist, but they’re firmly secondary.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 54% of key cast and crew members were POC.
What Men Want centers a Black perspective, full stop. Furthermore, it contains enough Black characters to reveal a wide range of that experience, from different personalities to shades of skin color to socioeconomic statuses. Better yet, filmmakers recognize the unique problems of Black women. In one of the most refreshing scenes, Ali vehemently tells her dickish boss that she refuses to be a "two-fer"—a diversity quota for being both Black and a woman.
Bonus for LGBTQ: +0.75
Director Shankman himself is openly gay and whether or not it’s a coincidence, his film includes a fantastic character who is also gay, white, and male. Brandon Wallace (Josh Brener), Ali's personal assistant, constitutes one of the film’s most important roles. You may recognize him as Big Head from HBO’s Silicon Valley, and Brener employs the same diminutive humor here to great effect. He might technically be Ali’s gay sidekick, but Shankman never reaches for lazy stereotypes to garner cheap laughs at the expense of someone’s sexuality. In fact, he demonstrates how rewarding it can be to include a minority character without either tokenizing them, nor ignoring the ways their culture shapes them.
Brandon enjoys his own story arc, tied as it is to Ali’s own development. We see him go through an endearingly awkward office romance, and even though the screen never shows them so much as kissing, Brandon constitutes a sizable amount of Ali’s emotional story arc—more so than her girlfriends, even.
Mediaversity Grade: B+ 4.42/5
Once more, I find myself happily brandishing a movie ticket for the chance to be entertained by Taraji P. Henson. She’s lightning in a bottle and almost single-handedly held the theater in stitches, while Brener picked up more through his stylized, self-effacing demeanor.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the inclusiveness and polished quality of a film that doesn’t seem to be getting a fair shake on Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB. But lucky for us, online reviews don’t control our wallets. The next time you have a few hours free, consider What Men Want. It won’t disappoint.