This week, Netflix released the first trailer for What Men Want, a Taraji P. Henson-starring remake of the 2000 Nancy Meyers film What Women Want. While the specifics of the plot are still a mystery, we do know that Henson will play a black woman struggling to advance in her company, who uses her newfound power to navigate the workplace boy’s club. Whether it lives up to its marketing as a feminist grifter story remains to be seen, but it doesn’t have the high nostalgic or critical bar to meet that other remakes did, like 2016’s women-driven Ghostbusters remake.
The original film tells the story of Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson), an adman involved in a freak accident that gives him the power to read women’s minds. Like many thoughtless goons might, he uses that power to steal ideas from his female colleagues, and manipulate his regular barista into sleeping with him. But having access to thoughts and ideas besides his own slowly forces a change. He finally tries to understand his teenage daughter, whose burgeoning sexuality he struggles to accept; he stops an employee from killing herself; he falls in love with coworker Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt), who at the start of the movie can’t stand him. He redeems himself by learning to listen to what women have to say and taking their opinions and concerns to heart.
Times have changed, and an easy thought is that What Women Want would probably be received much differently today. But while it’s thorny to relitigate an old movie by modern societal standards, we don’t have to: The movie’s unevenness and reliance on gender essentialism was as irritating in 2000 as it is in retrospect. In a December 2000 review for Salon, Stephanie Zacharek encouraged readers to think about why the “aggressively offensive” What Women Want was being produced then, zeroing in on the film’s premise that men are now forced to listen to women because of their increased buying power. “There’s no way around the fact that although What Women Want is being marketed toward women, it does nothing but condescend to them,” Zacharek wrote. “For that reason alone, it’s an intriguing if ugly little nugget of social history.”
Amy Taubin focused on Gibson’s performance in her review for The Village Voice, writing “Gibson’s facial muscles are so tight that they seem to have driven his eyes into the back of his skull…What Women Want is so busy and noisy that Gibson has to work even harder than usual to make himself noticed above the din.” Lisa Alspector, writing for Chicago Reader declared the film “mechanically scripted.” And A.O. Scott wrote for The New York Times, “If the movie had the courage to show that women are complex people, it would be a much more inspired picture. Instead, it feels anachronistic and lifted from other movies, dawdling as it arrives at the inevitable conclusion that listening to women makes Nick a better man.”
However, for every negative review there was a positive (or at least lukewarm) one. (Almost literally: The movie ended up with a 54 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, right down the middle.) Roger Ebert called the film “not boring and often very funny,” praising the art direction and set design. Marc Caro at The Chicago Tribune wrote that it “delivers on the promise of its playful premise” and “doesn't fudge on its ethical issues or forget what it's about.” There was no doubt that the film had its flaws, but some critics, including Scott, lamented the fact that its premise had promise. There are moments in the film’s first half that gesture to the tongue-in-cheek, anti patriarchal satire it could have been. I laughed out loud when Marshall asks a female colleague if he can interrupt her and she responds, “No, sure go ahead” through gritted teeth, while thinking “I hate that you’ve seen me naked.”
Communicating the experience of misogyny and sexism was the film’s main drawing power. It also had a worthwhile if underdeveloped critique on gendered silencing, especially as it manifests in the workplace. Marshall is constantly overwhelmed by the cacophony of women’s thoughts around him, particularly at his job, but while he covers his ears in anguish the women have their mouths closed. His maternal housekeeper is silent when he sexually harasses her; his colleagues at the ad agency are silent when he steals her ideas.
What gets less emphasis is that this silence is about survival in the workplace, as well as Marshall and other men’s complicitness in enforcing those silences. As befitting a romantic comedy starring (what was then) a desirable Hollywood leading man, the film goes to many lengths to humanize Marshall. We learn early on that his misogyny is rooted in his upbringing by his single mother, a showgirl, and her affectionate, caring community of fellow dancers. Marshall’s only male role models were the men who profited from his mother’s work. All he needed was to finally be forced to listen to women to cure his sexism. “Chauvinistic men have hearts, too” ends up being the lesson, while all the female characters could have easily been replaced by mannequins.
Mixed reviews didn’t impede What Women Want’s box office success. It made $33 million its opening weekend and remains the second-highest grossing romantic comedy ever, according to Box Office Mojo. Even so, it’s not fondly remembered in the way other successful rom coms of its time are, like 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, 1999’s Notting Hill, or the teen hits 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s All That, also from 1999. Mel Gibson’s reputation has suffered immensely in the time since, too: In 2006, as he was being arrested for drunk driving, he launched into an anti-semitic tirade. In 2010 recordings emerged of him verbally abusing his then-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva with racist misogynist language and a threat to burn down her house. Once a bankable star, Gibson hasn’t led a box office hit since the 2002 thriller Signs.
Therein lies What Women Want’s potential to be remade. Why revise something that was already good when you could revise something that desperately needed an overhaul, even when it was released? Remakes and reboots are all about grabbing those guaranteed, built-in audience dollars, but remakes are also about making cultural touchstones better reflect our social values today. I have high hopes for Taraji P. Henson as the movie’s star, but even if What Men Want is the most boring, cliché, gender essentialist, crowd-pleasingly tepid movie ever made, it will always have the advantage of not having another racist, sexist, anti-Semitic white dude as its star. I guess that’s called progress.