Taraji P. Henson powers through the comic clichés of What Men Want like a supernova engine that could. She’s a hot-wired riot, but her movie stalls almost as soon as it starts. It’s a gender flip on What Women Want, the nearly two-decades-old Nancy Meyers rom-com in which Mel Gibson (before he was revealed to be a raging bigot) played a piggish Chicago ad exec suddenly able to hear what women are thinking — which is nothing positive about him. In this inverted update, Henson plays Ali Davis, a hard-driving Atlanta sports agent who gets inside the heads of the boys’ clubbers who’ve been keeping her down for years. Their thoughts about women don’t go much deeper than “I gotta tap that.” But What Men Want, directed by Adam Shankman (Hairspray) from a worked-over script by Tina Gordon, Peter Hyuck and Alex Gregory, keeps promising a this-just-in relevance it can’t deliver. Giving old jokes a cosmetic facelift doesn’t make the gags any fresher; it just makes you wish someone could have really rethought the concept for the way we live now.
Instead, Henson plays all the usual male stereotypes as a woman. The workaholic, ruthlessly competitive Ali — pronounced like champ Mohammad’s last name, since her pro-boxer dad (Richard Roundtree) named her after him — drinks hard and plays harder. She browbeats her gay assistant, Brandon (Josh Brener), and mounts every guy she takes to bed, rolling over after two minutes, totally uninterested in their satisfaction. Ali even neglects her gal pals (Wendi McLendon-Covey, Phoebe Robinson, Tamala Jones), the ones who set her up with a weed-hustling psychic named Sister (played with go-for-broke gusto by Erykah Badu, who seems to having more fun than anybody). Sister gives Ali some kind of funky Haitian herbal tea, which leads to Ali falling and conking her head. Voilà — she can hear men thinking, a polite word for what’s in their craniums.
The central plot spins around a challenge: Can Ali, who hasn’t landed any talent from the NFL, MLB or NBA, finally make partner by signing rising basketball star Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie). The hitch is that Jamal’s father, Joe “Dolla” Barry (Tracy Morgan being Tracy Morgan, bless him), makes all the decisions, and the idea of a female agent breaks the bro code. That is until a poker game with all the interested male parties gives Ali the chance to do some mental eavesdropping. Shankman plays the sight of men behaving badly for farce, in which the laughs come from all the familiar places.
There is even less surprise in the love story between Ali and Will (Aldis Hodge), a widowed single dad who teaches this female version of Gibson’s Mad Max that love is more than boinking. The whiff of stale that permeates the movie is occasionally broken by a scene that actually reflects the layered complexities of modern-day relations between the sexes. At one point, CEO Nick Ivers (Brian Bosworth), Ali’s agency boss, stops short of firing her for fear of being “crucified by MeToo-ers.” It’s a line that stings, and the script could have used more of them instead of settling for unthreatening business as usual. Henson looks ready to come out firing on all cylinders, but the comic cowardice of <em>What Men Want</em> leaves her shooting blanks.