For all its attention to the subject of what men want, the comedy What Men Want (★★) really revolves around the question of what one woman wants. Taraji P. Henson stars as Ali Davis, a successful and single Atlanta pro sports agent who, as she says, is “crushing it” in her professional life representing clients like WNBA all-star Lisa Leslie.
Yet Ali feels underappreciated by her colleagues, almost all of them men. Several of the guys in the office accuse her of having no finesse for dealing with the opposite sex. They might be right, up to a point, as Ali operates under the misguided conviction that all any man wants is to get laid and get paid. Man, does she have a lot to learn, the film signposts loudly.
She’ll have to learn while suffering a series of humorous humiliations and setbacks, in keeping with the script’s inspiration, Nancy Meyers’ 2000 hit, What Women Want. That film starred Helen Hunt alongside a pre-“Sugar Tits” Mel Gibson as a confident man’s man who magically acquires the ability to hear women’s thoughts. In this case, Ali wakes up with the power to read men’s minds after a sharp bump to the head and a cup of magic tea served up by a funky, psychic weed lady named Sister (Erykah Badu).
In boilerplate rom-com fashion, Ali employs her new supernatural abilities to get ahead at her high-powered job, aided by her loyal gay sidekick and assistant, Brandon (Josh Brener). The setups supplied by director Adam Shankman and screenwriters Tina Gordon, Alex Gregory, and Peter Huyck are obvious throughout, but the punchlines are often chuckle-worthy and occasionally insightful. What Men Want has some bright ideas about what it might take for a woman to stay true to herself and get ahead in a male-dominated field, especially a chest-thumping, ego-driven world like pro sports.
It’s too bad the film isn’t funnier. Henson nails the balance of Ali’s outsize ambition and openness to change, but the Empire star labors a bit at the wacky, Lucille Ball-style physical hijinks, or at least the editing leaves that impression.
On the bright side, Ali’s life lessons are served with a tasty side of sex, romance, and male pulchritude, predominantly in the person of her love interest Will, a single dad well-played by Aldis Hodge. Unfortunately, Ali makes Will a pawn in her somewhat underhanded scheme to sign a young NBA prospect, Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie), the likely number-one draft pick.
But oh, the complications. In order to sign Jamal, she’ll first have to win over his dad and self-proclaimed manager, Joe “Dolla” Barry, played by Tracy Morgan as a more obnoxious than amusing version of a hyping, hustling sports parent like real-life “Big Baller” LaVar Ball, father of Lakers guard Lonzo.
No Big Ballers make an appearance, but a handful of current and retired NBA stars, from Shaq to Grant Hill to the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns, cameo as themselves. Badu might be playing herself, too, for all we know, as Sister. The singer steals scenes out from under esteemed comic actors Wendi McLendon-Covey, Phoebe Robinson, and Tamala Jones, as Ali’s crew of girlfriends.
Ali keeps her girls in the dark about her magical insights into the male mind, but every man she meets, even the visiting sports idols, are susceptible to her amazing powers of telepathy, yielding light humor generally at the athletes’ expense.
Only one big leaguer is sent on the field to deliver in a full-fledged role: ex-NFL linebacker-turned-action star Brian Bosworth, who acquits himself just fine playing Ali’s ball-busting, sexist boss, Nick. And erstwhile Twilight hunk Kellan Lutz certainly appears well-cast as a hunky neighbor Ali calls “Captain Fucktastic.” Despite the name, however, and the movie’s R-rating, the bedroom scenes seem to bend over backwards to keep things clean, with characters conspicuously staying dressed in every manner of sexual situation.
It’s the jokes and language that skew towards a teenager’s idea of risqué, especially the random thoughts of the sex-obsessed men Ali encounters everywhere she goes. That includes whichever guy in the office she overhears secretly admiring Brandon’s assets. The film follows through on Brandon’s romantic adventure to an unexpected, though chaste, degree, but still ultimately undercuts its own message. Depicting a world of dudes mostly chasing nothing but tail and cash, the movie suggests that, with the exception of the uncommonly decent Will, Ali probably was right all along about what men want.
What Men Want is rated R, and is playing at area theaters. Visit www.fandango.com.