What Men Want 

Taraji P. Henson deserves better than this

One of these days, someone's going to write a leading role worthy of Taraji P. Henson.

Maybe that seems like an ignorant thing to say about one of the most-seen actresses in America. As Cookie Lyon on Empire, she has become an icon of bold, empowered black womanhood. She's got the career everybody in the business wants.

But here's the thing: Henson's a damn movie star. That's been obvious ever since Hustle & Flow, where she first teamed up with Empire co-star Terrance Howard and director Craig Brewer, who now writes and directs for the show. Since then, she's generally been bigger than the roles she's taken. The possible exception is her role as NASA scientist Katherine Johnson in Hidden Figures, but even that hit film didn't do either its subjects or its actors justice.

click to enlarge Taraji P. Henson (above) rules the screen in Adam Shankman’s What Men Want.
  • Taraji P. Henson (above) rules the screen in Adam Shankman’s What Men Want.

While I was watching Henson flat murdering every stupid scene of What Men Want, it really drove home to me that the chief skill of a movie star is to get people to relate to them on screen. Maybe it's even deeper than "relate." You want to be this person. Their success feels like your success. Their failures sting, and we need to see their defeats redeemed, because it kind of makes up for all the unredeemed failures in our own lives.

If a movie star can deliver that, it's enough. But Cary Grant, the consummate movie star, not only had a string of flaccid potboilers where he's the best thing on the screen, he also had Notorious, North by Northwest, and Bringing Up Baby. That's what Taraji needs: A challenge for her formidable talents.

I admit that I remember very little about the 2000 film What Women Want starring Mel Gibson. This is probably because it is the 2000 film What Women Want starring Mel Gibson. The basic concept is that Mel was shocked by a hair dryer and instead of dying like a decent person he gained female telepathy, which he then uses to succeed in advertising and woo Helen Hunt. In this time of changing expectations, the war between the sexes seems more literal than ever, so gender flipping that idea could work. Perhaps we could achieve understanding between the sexes with a little inter-cranial communication.

Except, I listen to a man's thoughts all day, and trust me, ladies, you want no part of it.

This is a lesson that Henson, as crackerjack sports agent Ali Davis, learns very quickly. She's the kind of person who wakes up at 3 a.m. to conduct negotiations while walking a treadmill without even getting short of breath. After she meets a tarot card-reading psychic named Sister, played by neo-soul diva Erykah Badu, and drinks a Haitian herbal tea, she gains the ability to read the thoughts of men. Unfortunately, the firm where she works is populated exclusively by square-jawed, mouth-breathing douche nozzles, and their thoughts are even worse than mine.

The telepath tortured because she can't turn it off is an old sci-fi trope, and every now and then you can see one of the seven writers who have had a spoon in this stew flirt with actual thought, like when Ali accidentally helps someone kick a cocaine habit, or plays matchmaker between her openly gay assistant Brandon (Josh Brener) and a closeted co-worker (Pete Davidson). But for the most part, Ali is just bombarded by intercepted masculine notions that sound like tweet-sized utterances workshopped from an '80s sitcom writer's room: Men be like this, women be like that.

If there's a guy to take a talent like Henson and build a subversive #MeToo screwball comedy around her, it's not The Wedding Planner director Adam Shankman. You want to spin comedy gold out of the idea that the little deceptions and deflections of everyday life might just be the basic glue of civilization, and total honesty would be an ongoing disaster? Too bad, here's a Fiji Water product placement shot and a drunken, wig-snatching wedding brawl. He lingers too long on jokes, and the film has as many endings as Return of the King.

But in the end, I couldn't bring myself to hate What Men Want. Maybe I'm getting soft. Or maybe, against all odds, Henson just carries the day. In fact, her movie star charisma ends up undermining one of the film's plot arcs. The lead character is supposed to read as an egotistical jerk who is taught a lesson in humility by their experience. Mel Gibson fits that bill. Henson? I'd pay to watch her read the phone book.

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