Warning: This feature contains spoilers for What Men Want.
If someone were to ask you to name one of the top five highest-grossing rom-coms of all time would you think to answer What Women Want? Despite being written by genius screenwriter Nancy Meyers, it is hard to believe this Mel Gibson film made $182.2 million USD domestically considering the main character is unapologetically misogynistic.
Well, director Adam Shankman (Hairspray), writer Tina Gordon (Little), and producer Will Packer (Girls Trip), came together to give the movie a much-needed update What Women Want in the form of What Men Want starring Taraji P. Henson. Even with its flaws, What Men Want improves upon the original movie’s ideas by using its magical premise to highlight the poor treatment women often face in the workplace.
In What Women Want, Gibson plays Nick, who is described early on as a “man’s man,” idolized by other men around him. When a woman named Darcy (Helen Hunt) is promoted to creative director over Nick at an advertising company, he believes she was only hired because she of her gender and sets out to destroy her. A freak accident allows him to hear women’s inner thoughts and he uses these powers first, to get a woman to sleep with him, and then to manipulate Darcy and steal her ideas. There is nothing likeable about Nick and he never actually proves he is qualified for the job (which he, thankfully doesn't get... because he falls in love with Darcy, but too little too late, bro). Add to that the fact that he straight up sexually harasses women (including at work!) throughout the first 20 minutes of the movie, and this movie warrants more than a few complaints to the HR department.
On the flip side, Nick’s equivalent in What Men Want, Henson’s character Ali, is a sports agent who hopes to become a partner at her agency. While Ali is a bit of a callous person (she constantly belittles her assistant and treats other people terribly), is it clear that she is very good at her job, evidenced by her slew of high-profile clients. Despite her clear prowess, she loses a partner role to a man (adding insult to injury, this blow hits during a boardroom scene in which only one other woman is present). Later, Ali drinks some mysterious tea given to her by a strange psychic (who is perfectly cast as Erykah Badu) and hits her head. She wakes up with the ability to hear men’s thoughts, just like Nick did with women in the original.
Now, unlike the 2000 film, the mind-reading ability confirms what was already clear to the audience: Ali’s male co-workers are not any more qualified than she is. In fact, Ali does not really need this special ability to know why she is mistreated at work — her colleagues are pretty clear about that. Early on in the film, she addresses the issue of the executives' “boy’s club" with her boss, and he tells her she shouldn’t feel like she’s “entitled” to a partner position at the firm. He also directs says “stay in your lane,” meaning that Ali should focus on her mainly female clients.
At this point, we're not even halfway through What Men Want, and it has already shared more insight into workplace discrimination than the original film by showing the perspective of the character that actually should be the sympathetic one. Nick was entitled in What Women Want, he didn't actually have the talent of his female coworker, and it was only when he wanted to get the girl that he changed his tune. In this new version, Ali’s boss uses the word "entitled" to belittle her (and possibly to imply that she wrongly assumed she would get the job because she's a woman and the team needs the representation), but Ali’s co-workers, particularly Max Greenfield’s character Kevin, agree that she deserves to have been promoted. Where Nick just wanted to keep his office dominance in tact, Ali is actually trying to change the unfair gender disparity at her workplace.
What Men Want appears to actually want to play in this sandbox, where What Women Want simply used it as an entry point to a typical rom-com love story. Ali's boss' “stay in your lane” comment not only demeans Ali in the film, but also her female clients. Most of the firm acts as if her clients are worth less to the company simply because they are female athletes (apparently, they've never heard of Serena Williams). In one standout scene, Lisa Leslie, former WNBA superstar and Olympic gold medalist, questions why Ali’s agency cares more about featuring a soon-to-be drafted NBA wunderkind over her. There's one obvious conclusion that the film is driving us to: the agency considers male athletes more valuable and profitable.
The excavation of workplace, and workplace adjacent, sexism doesn’t stop there. Even after getting her new mind-reading powers, Ali decides not to win a game of poker against to avoid insulting a potential male client’s ego — a common, obnoxious concession for any businesswoman. Later, she is also insulted for not being a “family woman” (see: the misguided notion that being childless and husbandless somehow reflects on her professional ability). When she loses a prospective client, her boss tells her that the only reason she isn’t being fired is because of the #MeToo climate (she finishes the thought for him by adding the fact that she is also a black woman). And though Ali represents the struggle women in business feel every day, she has the added distress of also having to listen to her male co-workers' sexual, irrelevant, and misogynistic thoughts throughout the day.
Looking at all that Ali is dealing with makes Helen Hunt's Darcy, in What Women Want, seem a bit off. While any professional woman would likely be dealing with some combination of factors from Ali's daily hell, the What Women Want audience simply hears that, Darcy, the only somewhat authoritative female character in the film, primarily thinks about Nick throughout the day. While she's thinking about him, Nick’s plan to steal her idea works and she is subsequently fired. Nick waits until the final moments of the film to admit to both Darcy and his boss that he manipulated them. He suffers zero consequences at work and Darcy ultimately forgives him. It’s definitely not the greatest message.
Thankfully in What Men Want, Ali plays an active role in her story and chooses to not settle for what her boss expects her role to be. The film also allows its female lead to know her worth and expect more from her workplace, whereas What Women Want prioritizes a romantic ending over Darcy being respected at her job, or respecting herself. What Men Want certainly isn’t perfect, but it makes full use of its mystical premise by allowing its protagonist to become successful by not pleasing the men around her or bending to their whims (or mea culpa apologies, as is Gibson's move in the original). And that’s so much more satisfying than getting the guy (which, for the record, Henson manages to do on top of everything else).