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Non-Review Review: What Men Want

What Men Want is probably as solid an execution as the title premise could expect.

To be clear, What Men Want is very trite and straightforward. It is a movie that is largely defined by cliché. As the title implies, it’s essentially an exercise in broad gender stereotypes. There is very little novel and exciting in What Men Want. In fact, the most frustrating aspect of the whole film is the consistent refusal to work for a joke when the opportunity for a cheap lay-up presents itself. What Men Want is in no way an exceptional piece of work.

“Are you psychic?”
“No, I’ve just seen a rom-com before.”

At the same time, there is a certain charm to all of this. What Men Want is effectively an exercise in familiar formulas. Audience members will recognise all the stock romantic clichés employed here: the absurd lie that spirals into a brutal personal betrayal, the gay supporting character and sounding board, the third act separation and reunion, the protagonist’s journey towards realising that they need other people. However, there is something to be said for hitting those marks in a manner more effective than many modern films in the same subgenre.

It also helps that What Men Want is driven by a powerhouse central performance from Taraji P. Henson, who demonstrates a commitment and energy that the film can seldom match.

Catching up.

Formulas very rarely lead to classic films. Even when formulas lead to satisfying films, they require a level of technical craft across the board. It is not enough for a production team to hit their marks, they have to do so effortlessly and gracefully. It doesn’t have to appear seamless, but it does require a finesse that is largely lacking from What Men Want. There is a broadness to the film that never quite lands and never quite works, a strange sense of “just good enough” that permeates the film.

This is most obvious in the awkward popular culture references that serve to ground the film within a familiar frame of reference. Most modern comedies tend to riff off familiar set-ups and ideas, evoking other pieces of pop culture to provide a sense of broader context. The best moment in Instant Family is a laser-guided criticism of The Blind Side. The worst moment in Instant Family is when the movie pauses to explain that the joke being made was at the expense of The Blind Side.

Even allowing for the fact that these pop culture references are just expected of a modern comedy, What Men Want feels too awkwardly stuffed with them and too preoccupied with them to focus on anything else. A child wearing a woman’s thong on his head makes a reference to Black Panther, declaring, “Welcome to Wakanda!” When Ali’s personal assistant Ben discovers that Ali has been dosed with tea that has granted her psychic powers, he laments, “I thought black people stopped drinking tea after Get Out.”

What Men Want suffers from the biggest problems that face a major studio comedy; it is just not consistently funny enough. It fails the six-laugh test. A lot of this is down to the obviousness of its jokes and its unwillingness to reach higher than the lowest hanging fruit in a given scene. When Ali discovers that she can read men’s minds, the film inevitably fixates on the idea that all men are thinking about sex all the time. (Although it is nice that at least one person in the square outside her office still thinks that Michael Keaton was the best Batman.)

When the chips are down.

The audience doesn’t need to be psychic to see where the next joke is coming from, which is a problem in a comedy like this. At the same time, it is also something of a relief and a comfort. Major theatrical female-centric romantic comedies have had a relatively rough few months, with many recent releases struggling to manage the basic task of hitting the expected marks and playing the expected beats. What Men Want is not a great film, or even an especially good one, but it at least understands how a film like this is supposed to work.

There is something strangely reassuring in this. Isn’t It Romantic? seemed to fret that the studio romantic comedy was dead, relying on a winking and ironic framing device to justify an assortment of tired and familiar riffs on old romantic comedy tropes; telling the audience the joke before making the joke is rarely a good strategy. It often seemed that Isn’t It Romantic? was structured in the same way as Marvel Studios films, an awkward insistence that “this film made the joke about this trope before the internet, therefore it’s insulated.”

Where there’s a Will.

Isn’t It Romantic? often seemed to trying to have its cake and eat it. The lead character called out the offensiveness of the gay best friend archetype, only for the film to give her a horribly offensive gay best friend archetype. What Men Want is hardly much more nuanced, providing its lead with a gay personal assistant who fits in the role of the gay best friend. It is too much to suggest that Brandon is a nuanced character, but What Men Want at least gives him some small agency and an arc (and a relationship outside Ali) that feels more meaningful that just using him as a trope.

Second Act offers another point of comparison, adhering to many of the same tropes and rhythms; a story about a woman navigating the corporate world and trying to strike a balance between her personal relationships and career objectives. Both Second Act and What Men Want inevitably build to a big showy sequence in which the lead character announces her secret to the world in a way that humiliates the people closest to her. However, while Second Act treats this as a triumphant moment, What Men Want is canny enough to understand it’s the character’s lowest point.

Office space.

Perhaps this is damning with faintest praise; What Men Want is competent in the application of a well-worn formula. There is something interesting in the way that the film consciously feels like a modernisation of the blaxploitation template; it is no surprise that Richard Roundtree has a supporting role as Ali’s father. As with many blaxploitation films, What Men Want offers an attempt to filter an existing piece of popular culture through an African American lens. Although Ali is insistent that she is “not [a] twofer”, the film also inverts the gender dynamics of What Women Want.

In its own strange way, What Men Want offers a slightly more conservative feminist perspective than other female-centric films like Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel. Although What Men Want acknowledges the day-to-day ambient sexism that Ali faces, it responds with a much more “lean in” attitude. The film’s central joy seems to come from the idea that having a female lead who is just as self-centred and aggressive as the stereotypical male leads in these films represents some kind of progress. There’s something to that. Call it “the Girls’ Trip approach.”

An Ali to women everywhere.

At one point, Ali grills a male co-worker for thinking of her as “a ball-buster”, pointing out the double-standard frequently applied to assertive women. The character quickly thinks, “If you were a man, you’d be a dick.” It is not the most nuanced portrayal of gender dynamics, but there’s something interesting in how What Men Want treats Ali’s journey exactly as it would the journey of any male character. This is particularly notable during the movie’s sex scenes, in which Ali’s unashamed pursuit of her own satisfaction is a wry reversal of a commonly gendered trope.

This works much better than it should because of the charisma and energy of Taraji P. Henson. Henson is a gifted dramatic performer, but she also demonstrates considerable commitment to the film’s premise and rhythms. There are stretches where it almost seems like Henson is physically pushing the film along. She’s clearly enjoying herself, relishing the opportunity to play the sort of role that would have been reserved for Gerard Butler or Matthew McConaughey ten or fifteen years ago. Some of that joy is infectious.

What Men Want is effective, rather than actively good. It does things that interesting and efficient more than they are innovative or insightful. That’s might not be cause for celebration, but it knows how to give its target audience most of what they want.

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