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Review: Taraji P. Henson is in fine form in ‘What Men Want,’ but the half-baked movie lets her down

Taraji P. Henson in “What Men Want” movie from Paramount Pictures and Paramount Players.
Taraji P. Henson in the movie “What Men Want.”
(Jess Miglio / Paramount Pictures)

There’s something so wonderfully ironic about a black woman taking over the sequel to a Mel Gibson vehicle. The effervescent Taraji P. Henson stars in “What Men Want,” the gender-flipped reboot of “What Women Want,” the 2000 Nancy Meyers film starring Gibson as a playboy who — after a freak accident — can hear the inner monologues of women. But director Adam Shankman is no Nancy Meyers. And though Henson gives her all to this performance, a bungled script (by Tina Gordon, Peter Huyck, Alex Gregory and Jas Waters) and half-baked execution undermine the message the film wants to convey.

In “What Women Want,” it was easy to believe Gibson’s Nick was a self-centered jerk who needed a turn inside women’s brains to develop his compassion and empathy. “What Men Want” asks us to imagine the same thing of Ali (Henson), a hard-charging Atlanta sports agent. But sometimes identity-flips in reboots simply don’t work because they don’t reflect the power dynamics of the real world.

Ali is ambitious, determined and good at her job. She can give it and take it when it comes to bantering with the boys, but she’s passed over for a partner position in favor of a younger male colleague. She shows up for her friends, appreciates handsome men, and while she may be a bit hapless and arrogant, she has good intentions. It seems likely Ali really did miss out on the promotion because her workplace is an all-white boys club roiling with “locker-room talk.”

Thanks to a psychedelic tea from a psychic (Erykah Badu in a, frankly, inspired performance) — or was it the head injury at the club? — Ali is gifted with the blessing and burden of a mental portal into an unfiltered stream of male consciousness. Most women would love to know what men are thinking. Ali finds it’s mostly sex and bodily functions. She decides to use the curse to her advantage while competing to sign the No. 1 draft pick, Jamal (Shane Paul McGhie) and his helicopter dad, Joe “Dolla” (Tracy Morgan).

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Along the way, Ali pulls her new love interest, Will (Aldis Hodge), and his son into a scheme to sign the client, and bears the responsibility of knowledge about every infidelity in town. What she ultimately learns is honesty is always the best policy. A good lesson for anyone, but in the film’s race to resolve its conflicts, it tries to retroactively suggest Ali needed to learn these lessons to get over her ego and treat men better. It’s impossible to buy this when it’s never sufficiently established that she’s a jerk or terrible person in the first place. The film doesn’t take the time to make us believe Ali deserves the reality check.

She’s not the only one with sketchy motivations and a poorly drawn character arc. While Ali shares a smart rapport with her gay assistant, Brandon (Josh Brener), there’s a twinge of gay panic in the air, and Brandon’s romantic subplot is a failure. Phoebe Robinson is randomly inserted as a druggie friend cliché, and Shankman has a predilection for focusing on weird side interactions that distract from the story and result only in loose ends.

Henson is a gifted actress and physical comedian. She manages to hold together “What Men Want” with the sheer force of her powerful charisma, but the film around her is harried, messy and woefully underwritten.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

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‘What Men Want’

Rated: R for language and sexual content throughout, and some drug material

Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes.

Playing: In general release

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