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Do we need a remake of the Mel Gibson rom-com?

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Almost 20 years after Mel Gibson starred in “What Women Want,” Taraji P. Henson gives the story a gender flip in “What Men Want.”
USA TODAY

Things sure were different in 2000.

When “What Women Want” came out almost 20 years ago, it starred Mel Gibson, then six years away from a drunken arrest during which he hurled anti-Semitic slurs at cops. Back in those simpler times, Gibson was George Clooney-level charming in the romantic comedy, which depicts him as the kind of rakish bachelor who grossly feels up girls in coffee shops. (His character also tells cringeworthy jokes to female co-workers, including: “Do you know the difference between a wife and a job? After 10 years, a job still sucks.”) 

Now Taraji P. Henson’s remake, “What Men Want,” hits theaters Friday – but is “What Women Want” even worth a narrative flip?

It’s easy enough to be wary of the source material in the #TimesUp and #MeToo era. But surprisingly, on a recent rewatch, the original – in all its early-aughts glory – proves to be rather sweet. 

Maybe that’s because director Nancy Meyers was at the helm, and two of the movie’s three credited screenwriters were women. After showcasing Nick (Gibson) in all his boorish glory, Meyers spends the next two hours mopping up on her single dad. Thanks to freshly gained telepathy, Nick, a New York advertising executive known for hocking “babes in bikinis” and fat-shaming women who eat pastries at work, actually evolves. He falls for his firm’s new female creative director, Darcy (Helen Hunt), who he’s been trying to undermine. He figures out how to relate to his teen daughter. Nick even realizes “penis envy” is a meritless male construct. 

Fueled by its respectable gender analysis, “What Women Want” raked in $182.8 million at the box office. So could Henson’s updated film earn the same kind of business – or is it just the latest in a long line of disappointing Hollywood remakes? 

First, the new plot: “What Men Want” runs with the same “men are from Mars” gambit, but switches up the sexes. Moving the (now R-rated) story down to Atlanta, Henson takes center stage as Ali, a fearsome sports agent who’s hit a glass ceiling at her talent-management firm. But when a psychic (Erykah Badu) serves up drug-laced tea during Ali’s gal’s night out (and she subsequently knocks herself unconscious dancing at a club), it happens: Ali can hear what men are thinking.

And, as it turns out, like Nick almost two decades before her, Ali had no idea how she came off to the opposite sex.

“What Men Want,” directed by Adam Shankman (“Hairspray”) and executive produced by Henson, works because it makes a rather timely, happily diverse example of the telepathy plotline. Ali definitely deserves a promotion, but she repeatedly gets in her own way. Her personal relationships are hollow, she treats dates as sex objects (cue a hilarious callback to the original film when she utilizes her powers) and Ali constantly crosses the line while bossing around her male gay assistant. 

Like Gibson’s character, Ali tries to give back her newfound gift before being convinced to put her new inner ear to use at work. Determined to become partner after all, she crashes her firm’s poker night, finally gets a solid read on her boss, and swoops in to sign a young NBA draft pick by wooing his zany helicopter dad (Tracy Morgan). 

While Meyers did a fine job of showcasing the interior life of Hunt by way of Gibson’s mind-reading, “What Men Want” manages to explore the opposite sex while also digging deeper into its main protagonist. In pulling the curtain back on Ali’s journey to climb the corporate ladder, “What Men Want” is unrepentant (and shame-adverse) about what ambition looks like in 2019. 

Is “What Men Want” a cheesefest like its predecessor 19 years ago? Sure. But Henson’s (dare we say) woke update is worth the price of admission.

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