Say this for Taraji P. Henson: when she commits to a role she commits to a role, and she is the primary reason why the cheerfully bawdy comedy “What Men Want” is consistently funny and entertaining.
Even when it’s beyond ridiculous.
Directed with breezy style by Adam Shankman (“Hairspray”) and featuring winning performances by Henson and a supporting cast led by Tracy Morgan and Richard Roundtree — not to mention a bunch of sports celebs playing themselves — “What Men Want” is a remake of the Mel Gibson-starring hit “What Women Want” from 2000.
Remember 2000, when Mel Gibson was still in his prime and was one of the more likable and bankable movie stars in the world? In the Nancy Meyers-directed “What Women Want,” Gibson’s Nick is a boorish, sexist advertising executive in Chicago who is knocked out by an electric shock, wakes up — and discovers he can hear women’s thoughts.
In “What Men Want,” the story is relocated to Atlanta, where Henson’s Ali is a multi-tasking, career-driven sports agent with a powerful agency that seems to have about 500 employees working out of headquarters roughly the size of the Domestic Terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. (Movies about sports agencies and newsrooms and advertising and PR firms often feature scenes in which dozens of people are walking around with great purpose. How does anyone get anything done with all the walking?)
With her trusty assistant (Josh Brener) catering to her every whim and following her around like a newborn puppy, Ali arrives at work convinced she’s about to shatter the glass ceiling and be named the first female partner in the testosterone-fueled agency. (This is the kind of place where the guys won’t even admit to the women they have regular poker games, and the head of the agency literally throws a football around in meetings.)
To Ali’s shock, she’s passed over for a smarmy male hotshot, so she goes on quite the bender. She hooks up with a handsome bartender named Will (Aldis Hodge) for a one-night stand, shows up late and hung over and disheveled (to say the least) for an important meet-and-greet the next day — and eventually winds up in the hospital after a bachelorette party that included the ingestion of multiple mood-altering substances, not to mention a seemingly crazy psychic (Erykah Badu) putting some kind of spell on her.
When Ali wakes up, she discovers she can hear the thoughts of all men, and off we go with the comedic hijinks.
Of course Ali is going to use this new gift to her advantage, whether she’s at work or she’s in the elevator with the hunky neighbor (Kellan Lutz, in a funny, self-deprecating turn) she’s always wanted to, um, get to know a little bit better.
But one of the pleasures of “What Men Want” is how the screenplay scores points about the mindset of the American male without being mean-spirited or overly cynical. As Ali walks through the office, she hears some surprising truths about how the men view her — but she also discovers some of them aren’t as macho and jerky as they project themselves to be. Insecurities abound.
The great Tracy Morgan is fantastic as Joe, the self-promoting, LaVar Ball-like father/agent of Jamal (Shane Paul McGhie), a Georgia Tech point guard projected to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. If Ali can win over Joe and sign Jamal, her agency will have no choice to but name her partner — so she concocts an elaborate scheme involving the aforementioned Will the bartender (who is a single father) and Will’s young son, who have no idea they’re being used as pawns in the plan.
There’s a hit-and-miss element to the comedic set pieces. A wedding ceremony gone horribly wrong is more cringe-inducing than funny — but a poker game in which Ali plays against Mark Cuban and Shaquille O’Neal, among others, is flat-out funny, and the sex scenes with Ali and Will are as memorably hilarious as the Mel Gibson/Marisa Tomei hookup in the original film.
There’s even room for a touching scene in which Ali’s father (Richard Roundtree) and Will bond over their common experience as men who lost their wives too soon and had to raise a child on their own.
At the center of it all is Henson, whose Ali is movie-star glamorous one moment, self-destructive hot mess the next. Henson displays impeccable comedic timing in creating a character who is deeply flawed but inherently likable, and someone we’re rooting for every step of the way.
‘What Men Want’
Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Adam Shankman and written by Tina Gordon, Peter Huyck and Alex Gregory. Rated R (for language and sexual content throughout, and some drug material). Running time: 117 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.