Before you roll your eyes at the idea of yet another gender-flipped remake/reboot, with unfortunate flashbacks to Paul Feig’s listless Ghostbusters and last year’s soulless Ocean’s 8, this reworking of Nancy Meyers’ 2000 comedy What Women Want is one of those rare occasions where the unimaginative sex-swap premise actually works. Director Adam Shankman doesn’t reinvent the template, going through familiar motions with a largely telegraphed journey of self-discovery, but his film is elevated by a go-for-broke energy that is hard to fend off. The central star, Taraji P. Henson, who takes over from Mel Gibson as the in-it-for-themselves careerist who ends up able to hear the inner thoughts of the opposite sex, is also a major draw. Henson plays Ali, a sports agent who spends her life in the boy’s club and is repeatedly denied the opportunity to become a partner in the agency, told by her boss to “stay in your lane”. She uses her newfound powers to her advantage, much in the same way the actress uses the material to stretch her comedy stylings. She’s joined by some excellent supporting players, including Erykah Badu, who makes a show-stealing cameo as a weed-peddling, tarot-reading fortune-teller named Sister. From her manic stares to the way she slams her tarot cards down with reckless abandon (not caring that a cheeky Uno card may have made the deck), she’s a laugh-out-loud riot who is so good, the end credits roll to a reel of her deleted scenes.
A bit more bite wouldn’t have gone amiss; What Men Want isn’t the laceration of chauvinistic attitudes or the scathing critique of entrenched toxic masculinity hiding behind meritocracy within corporate America that it could have been. Some parts of the script also aim a little too desperately towards the culturally topical and end up either on the unfunny or the wrong side of the zeitgeist: nods to the MeToo movement and “locker-room talk” work, but the repeated “Okurrr” – clearly used as a wink at fans of the Kardashians and Cardi B, who appropriated the catchphrase from drag culture – is old and needs to end, while a reference to Michael Jackson does not sit well in light of recently resurfaced child abuse allegations. Granted, no script can predict climate changes, but trying to wring relevance from all-too-obvious sources does the film a mild disservice here. Still, it’s a minor bum note considering the fun romp that capitalises on the current social climate in the best way possible, one which provides some genuinely funny moments and above all, makes a strong case for more directors to get Erykah Badu’s agent on speed dial.
What Men Want | Directed by Adam Shankman (US, 2019), with Taraji P. Henson, Josh Brener, Tracy Morgan, Erikah Badu. Starts March 14.
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