What Men Want should be a horror movie. The premise of a woman — particularly a woman working in the macho world of a sports agency, as What Men Want’s heroine does — given the gift to see inside the minds of men should, on paper at least, be a radical feminist They Live or a hallucinatory nightmare à la Blue Velvet. But since it’s determined to be a romantic comedy, at least tangentially, in the vein of the 2000 Nancy Meyers film What Women Want (a determination that is itself bizarre), What Men Want is a wildly uneven stretch of a movie that’s more of a flail than a romp.
Taraji P. Henson plays Ali, an alpha woman and daughter of a boxing coach who has grown up to be a powerhouse sports agent in Atlanta with a fancy loft, a loyal lap dog of an assistant (Josh Brener) and an anemic love life. Despite being the only woman in the room, she is pretty sure she’s on the cusp of being made partner at her agency. But the honor is instead bestowed to an agent her junior, through what appears to be some kind of shadowy boy’s-club poker-night loyalty that she is not privy to. Dejected, she goes to her friend’s bachelorette party, where they have hired a questionable psychic (Erykah Badu) who gives her some freaky tea and sends her on her way to the club. A fight breaks out on the dance floor, Ali is knocked out, and when she comes to she can hear men’s thoughts (starting with the imperceptibly under-the-influence doctor looking after her).
The voice-over effect that carries this premise is a shaky one, and some of the men Ali eavesdrops on are better at delivering it than others. The direction of those should-be telepathic punch lines is actually a delicate art; we shouldn’t be able to tell that it was recorded separately, on a different day, with a different mood, by one’s self in a recording booth. The movie is not without its pleasures, though — the violent zigzag between mainstream rom-com and raunchy R-rated sex farce (a used condom features in a prolonged comic setpiece) allows for some pockets of enjoyably goofy nonsense imported from a more confident film. Henson’s comic timing remains great even when the material isn’t, and Badu is the loopy-great highlight of the film, introducing a kind of liberating madness to the film that it would have been wise to follow.
Adding to the disorienting effect is that it’s completely unclear what Ali is supposed to be learning from her new powers. She does figures out where the poker night is, which gets her in a position to impress the father of the young No. 1 draft pick the agency is courting (Tracy Morgan, in a truly confounding role, tonally and logically.) But then in order to win the father’s approval, she must pose as a “family woman,” roping a her one-night stand Will (Aldis Hodge) and his young son into her fake family, without their knowledge, because premises this flimsy only work with maximum ignorance on all sides. Of course, she and Will eventually fall in love for real, and Ali, normally tone-deaf in bed, uses her psychic powers to have mind-blowing sex with him. Henson and Hodge have good chemistry, and are both pretty hilarious in both the bad and good love scenes, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that one of the primary ways in which What Men Want thinks hearing men’s thoughts would be useful would be an enhanced ability to please them in bed.
The point of the film in general seems barely thought-through. Ali uses her gift to better cater to a young athlete, win money from Mark Cuban, find out which men want to have sex with her, find out which men are gay (something the film treats with giggling hyperventilation), and find out how sad her dad is about her mom’s passing. The film culminates with a Big Boardroom Speech in which Ali tells her co-workers how much she’s learned to value herself and her talents. But it’s clear what the real message of What Men Want is, and it’s a lesson we could all stand to be reminded of: Don’t fake a marriage with a widowed father to court a prospective client and be made partner at your sports agency!