What Men Want
Directed by: Adam Shankman
Written by: Tina Gordon, Peter Huyck and Alex Gregory
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Tracy Morgan and Aldis Hodge
Classification: R; 117 minutes
Whether or not you’re a fan of Nancy Meyers, there is one undeniable thread to her work: she makes compassionate films about men and women feeling vulnerable and, even more so, men and women feeling vulnerable out loud and with one another. There is a reason that she, similar to the late Nora Ephron, has come to be synonymous with a category of filmmaking historically associated with female audiences: she paints the women and men of her films with the same brush, however broad. She makes space for stories that centre women (albeit, mostly white women) and the ways in which their feelings and experiences shape their relationships with men – and, importantly, other women – around them.
So the decision to remake What Women Want – a film that, despite starring Mel Gibson, is so exemplary of these tendencies of Meyers as a filmmaker – is not one that should be made without considered thought. Her string of 1990s and early 2000s romantic comedies have become oft-parodied contemporary classics for a reason. Much like the early 20th-century screwball comedies Meyers’s films hark back to (or, attempt to update with a modern sheen and penchant for women clad in high-end neutral basics), her directorial style is unobtrusive and distinctively breezy. Making a film with the specific lightness of touch that Meyers’s most-appreciated comedies (Father of the Bride, The Parent Trap, Something’s Gotta Give) are inherently imbued with is not as easy as it looks.
Which is why Adam Shankman’s gender-reversed retelling, What Men Want, doesn’t land as lightly. Shankman’s update welcomingly swaps Mel Gibson for Taraji P. Henson, who stars as Ali, an ambitious sports marketing agent working within an all-male company. Positioned as an unsophisticated man-eater type in her romantic relationships, Ali’s perceived inability to connect with men has halted her professional advancement by the men who hold all of the power to promote her.
While 2000’s What Women Want is unmistakably a film of Meyers’s own making, Shankman’s film distinguishes itself through a (mostly) refreshing R-rated approach to humour and movements, however unsubtle, toward grappling with the notion of retelling such a story in 2019. This is most often apparent in its half-hearted invocations of the inimitable Cardi B (key word: inimitable), as well as its attempts at conceptualizing a black female lead with a self-winking (and too self-congratulatory) awareness of our current cultural climate. One scene has Ali’s white assistant comment that he is unsure if, even upon her request, he is allowed to compliment her on her butt. It is funny, but is it well-executed? Not particularly.
This isn’t to say that What Men Want fails because of these necessary changes to its story, but rather that these changes require a level of skill that hasn’t been developed enough here. Early in the film, Ali, frustrated by her failure to make partner, asks her father, “How am I supposed to win when the system is rigged against me?” It’s a shame that this type of nuance is not revisited throughout the rest of the film.
The movie’s most glaring element, however, is not its successes or failings at its particular brand of post-woke cultural literacy, but rather its concept of reversing the gender roles altogether. In Meyers’s iteration, Gibson’s character learns, however problematically, the value of making a compassionate and respectful space for the women around him – not just the women he is related to and not just the women he is romantically involved with. The greatest success of What Women Want was its centring of women’s feelings (and emotional vulnerability and care) as a powerful form of knowledge for all.
What Men Want is instead content to lead with its appraisal of Ali as inept at dealing with the male psyche, and position male knowledge as the be-all-and-end-all of professional and emotional success. What the film skirts around is the fact that, for most women, being able to hear the inner thoughts of men – or, for those of the #NotAllMen contingent, this film’s men in particular – would be an unsurprisingly less welcome gift, never mind one likely to spur some life-altering level of inspired personal growth and self-reflection.
Meyers’s film ends with Gibson telling his romantic interest, “Guys like that ex-husband of yours made you feel like the price you pay for just being you is that you don’t get to have love. That you weren’t really a winner.” In contrast, What Men Want is a film where, for example, Ali willingly losing a poker game to a powerful man is supposedly a lesson of selflessness to be learned (and the idea that this specific lesson will somehow correlate to a strengthening of her friendships with women). The concept of a woman being a “winner” and of being the best version of herself because she has a better understanding of “what men want”? That ain’t it. Say what you will about Nancy Meyers, but at least she knew that.
What Men Want opens Feb. 8.