Women today make up nearly half of the American workforce, but antediluvian suspicions of female ambition clearly linger. How else to explain the movies’ continued ritualistic taming of career women—those zombie-eyed, child-phobic high-achievers who make everyone, including themselves, miserable until they learn to settle down with the right man? I’m not convinced that this particular brand of stilettoed harpy is actually all that popular: In fact, her overrepresentation in studio rom-coms may have hastened that genre’s death in the past decade. But here she is again in What Men Want, a high-concept comedy about the domestication of a work-obsessed woman that nonetheless managed to win me over.
Loosely based on 2000’s What Women Want, which starred Mel Gibson (ugh) as a chauvinist who reaps a new understanding of the irrational females around him when he acquires the ability to read their thoughts, the Adam Shankman–directed new film features Taraji P. Henson as the protagonist who gains insight into the other sex. But crucially, Henson’s Ali—as in Muhammad Ali, whose picture hangs in her apartment—isn’t just hampered by her own blinders but actively frustrated by the old boys’ club at the sports-management firm where she’s the sole black female agent. Kept from the weekly poker nights where her male colleagues woo potential clients, Ali hits a breaking point when she’s denied a promotion that goes to a white dude with less experience. On the night of a friend’s bachelorette party, it’s either some magic tea from a psychic (a hysterical Erykah Badu sending up her weed-loving earth-goddess image) or a conk to the head while clubbing that gives Ali the power to hear what her co-workers really think of her.
There’s something refreshing about a workplace comedy that takes seriously the additional struggles a woman of color has to overcome in an industry dominated by white men. It’s genuinely painful to watch one of the guys (Jason Jones) make casual attempts to gaslight Ali into thinking those all-important poker sessions don’t exist. And when her white male boss later twists his fear of the #MeToo movement around to insult Ali, it echoes all too piercingly an unfortunate side effect of the movement.
But a Hidden Figures redux, about upstanding black women waiting for the chance to prove their worth and talent, this is not—and not just because of the film’s nonstop barrage of smart one-liners and its gonzo, Girls Trip–esque approach to the sex scenes. Instead, it turns out Ali would probably be disliked just as much if she were one of the guys. Theoretically, this muddling of the stakes should make What Men Want more interesting, as our point-of-view character isn’t a blameless victim but a morally gray figure closer to our own reality. The problem is that Ali’s faults are so over-the-top that she’s difficult to relate to. She’s horrifically mean and not a little homophobic to her tweedy assistant (Josh Brener). She’s a terrible friend to her besties (Tamala Jones, Phoebe Robinson, and a scene-stealing Wendi McLendon-Covey). She’s aggressively selfish in bed, clobbering and throttling gentle bartender Will (Aldis Hodge, serving as an excellent straight man) on her way to climax. (A parody of male erotic self-interest, complete with a post-coital nap, the cartoonish scene reveals the absurdity of such behavior simply by having a woman act it out.) And if all that weren’t bad enough, Ali passes off Will and his young son (Auston Jon Moore) as her husband and child without their knowledge after learning that a potential client’s loopy manager-father (Tracy Morgan back in top form) doesn’t trust women without families.
If What Men Want argued that it was the institutional challenges Ali faced that made her such a hardened jerk, it might have made for a more pointed film. Instead, her callousness is all her own, which makes her redemption feel both obligatory and strangely divorced from the movie’s larger points about racism and sexism in professional settings. The script’s debt to several writers (Tina Gordon, Alex Gregory, and Peter Huyck, with a story by Gordon and Jas Waters) probably accounts for the film’s lack of focus. The nearly two-hour comedy feels overlong, especially in its third act, as Ali apologizes to what feels like an interminable series of characters. Cameos by sports luminaries like Lisa Leslie, Grant Hill, and Shaquille O’Neal should help us better understand the rarefied air of Ali’s high-flying existence, but they mostly just remind us that athletes aren’t actors.
And yet it’s easy to forgive What Men Want its many faults, given its guiding spirit of fun. This is, after all, a movie that refers to a Hugh Jackman–jacked Kellan Lutz only as “Captain Fucktastic.” (He is credited accordingly.) Though Ali doesn’t do anything too outlandish with her new powers, she still wrings some adventure out of them. (Naturally, one of the best places to use telepathy to maximum effect is the bedroom.) A few misunderstandings of the horny thoughts of Pete Davidson’s fellow agent lead to rascally crude gags. And a delightful closing-credits sequence full of Badu outtakes gives us a glimpse of the looser, loonier comedy we could’ve more fully enjoyed if the film weren’t so committed to its dousing-the-spitfire formula. What Men Want won’t let viewers have it all, but what we get is more than satisfying.