“What Men Want” presumes a lot of things about its viewers. One is that they won’t tolerate a satire of workplace sexism if it doesn’t sometimes put the woman in her place. Another is a taste for Fiji water, an object of product placement so frequent that you worry for a drought in the South Pacific.
Directed by Adam Shankman, this comedy flips the script on Nancy Meyers’s “What Women Want” (2000), in which a Chicago chauvinist (Mel Gibson) gets his comeuppance after gaining the power to hear women’s thoughts. This time, the mind reader is an Atlanta sports agent, Ali (Taraji P. Henson), who works at a boy’s club of a company and is repeatedly passed over for partner status. Her boss, Nick (Brian Bosworth), tells her, “You’re doing great in your lane.”
But thanks to either a knock on the head or the laced tea given to her by a psychic (Erykah Badu), Ali begins to hear what men are thinking, the better to get sweet, sweet revenge. Part of the message, of course, is that it doesn’t take a mind reader to see that Ali’s colleagues — who court a star African-American basketball player (Shane Paul McGhie) with a racist video filled with bling and women — are complete boneheads, working in a frat house dressed up as an office.
While “What Men Want” starts off as a stinging critique, it undermines that message with one of Hollywood’s favorite idiotic subplots. Because the star player’s father (Tracy Morgan) doesn’t trust a woman without a family, Ali tries to pass off a one-night stand and his son (Aldis Hodge and Auston Moore) as her husband and child.
Presumably Ali’s ability to hear their thoughts would make that charade easier. So would a simple conversation. But Ali is a bad communicator, and one lesson the movie deigns to teach her is to listen more carefully.
If the original delivered payback to a sexist, the new film ought to let a victim of sexism turn the tables. “What Men Want” doesn’t stick to that conceit, however, despite such barbed moments as when Nick says aloud that he would fire Ali if he didn’t fear a #MeToo outcry. The film insists that Ali, like Gibson’s ad man, receive her comeuppance: She learns to respect her gay assistant (Josh Brener) and to be less selfish in her career and in bed.
Memo to working women: Don’t be ball busters, or else.
The gender politics of “What Men Want” only sometimes play as retrograde, though. The movie covers all its bases, determined to give every segment of the audience what it wants, with dubious success.