By Dwight Brown, NNPA Film Critic
It’s about time Taraji P. Henson, after a string of B-movies (Proud Mary, Acrimony), rocked a bonafide comedy. On talk shows her innate sense of humor is evident. On the big screen (Hidden Figures, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and small one (Empire) she’s built a solid, award-winning rep in drama. Now she’s digging into ribald humor, and has surrounded herself with the right producers (Girls Trip), director (Adam Shankman, The Wedding Planner, Hairspray), screenwriters (Tina Gordon, ATL; Peter Huyck, Veep) cast and crew. If most of the ingredients are right, the cake will turn out just fine.
The source material for this flagrant, shameless comedy is What Women Want (2000), directed by Nancy Meyers and starring Mel Gibson. (Remember the days when he was loved?). He played a chauvinistic advertising executive who, after a freak head injury, could hear what women thought. He used that advantage to rally against a female exec who got a promotion he wanted. In the process he learned life lessons. Hold that thought.
Fast forward 19 years. Ali Davis (Henson) is a top agent at an elite sports management firm. She drives a Porsche (leased), has an overly-attentive assistant (Josh Brener, The Front Runner), whom she treats like a dog and a bevy of girlfriends (Tamala Jones, Wendi McLendon-Convey, Phoebe Robinson) she counts on for moral support. Ali needs all those trappings if she is to survive the constant stream of disappointments and derision she encounters with her male peers at Summit Worldwide Management.
The source of Ali’s biggest frustration is that she can’t make partner and is constantly overlooked by her boss Nick (Brian Bosworth, former Seattle Seahawk), who stifles her: “You don’t connect well with men. You do well in your lane. Stay in your own lane.” Even though she handles top, star athletes like Lisa Leslie and Serena Williams, her achievements are marginalized by her colleagues.
The agency is trying to land the next big basketball draft pick, a skinny talented young player named Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie). That’s the easy part. He’s managed by his pushy, stage-dad, health-freak father Joe “Dolla” Barry (Tracy Morgan), who is a pain in the ass. That’s the difficulty. The agent who signs Barry will be the next hot shot at Summit. Can Ali take the crown?
What Women Want was a genteel, safe romantic comedy. What Men Want, is not. Twenty minutes into it, the outrageous sight-gag sex scenes, flippant dialogue and over-the-top performances yank the old premise firmly into the 21st century with a brand of humor fans who loved Bridesmaids will enjoy. There isn’t one subtle comic turn in this entire film. That gives Henson a chance to show her Tiffany Haddish side, which is more than willing to do anything it takes to make viewers laugh.
Tucked into the debauchery are moral-to-the-story subplots that are somewhat touching. Ali’s romance with the hunky bartender Will (Aldis Hodge, Straight Outta Compton) involves his young son Ben (Auston John Moore) and Ali’s selfish deceit. Her egocentric antics test her friendship with her girlfriends. And, the way she treats her assistant Brandon, who is gay, goes from patronizing and vile to dehumanizing. Ali’s got issues. Lots. And when she’s being introspective, she admits it: “Winning doesn’t matter if you’re a horrible person.”
The inciting incident that changes her trajectory comes when she meets a weird psychic named Sister (Erykah Badu) who gives her a cup of a magical, drug-laden tea. The mysterious potion, along with a head injury, makes Ali hear what men are thinking. As she hones this new talent, she picks up the hidden feelings of her fellow workers (no wonder they never invite her to their weekly poker game), her assistant (he really wants a promotion) and even her supportive dad (Richard Roundtree).
The script was developed by writers whose wheelhouse is sitcoms, so this modern tale is told in broad strokes. If you’re looking for a demented and sophisticated comedy (The Favourites), look elsewhere. Every situation here is meant to make the target urban and female audiences laugh until they lose bladder control.
Initial scenes lack the kind of dazzling cinematography (Jim Denault) audiences expect from a motion picture, making sets and exterior scenes look like they belong on a TV show. Certainly, Shankman’s unimaginative direction (too many scenes are shot in rooms, offices, cars) lacks the style and creativity top feature film directors can display.
The better tech elements belong to: Sekinah Brown’s (Ride Along) costume design; Emma E. Hickox’s (Kinky Boots) judicious editing, which after a few initial slow scenes, makes the footage breeze by in 1hr and 57 min; Brian Tyler’s (Iron Man 3) fun musical score is aided greatly by a hip playlist with vibrant songs like Jill Scott’s very upbeat and cool tune “Golden.”
Tracy Morgan is clearly in his element as the dodo-brain dad. Can’t tell how much of his dialogue is based on the script or improvised, but fair to say he’s never been funnier. The girlfriend trio is quite humorous. SNL’s Pete Davidson milks laughs as a lecherous officer worker. Hodge may be the new Morris Chestnut. And it is a gift whenever Richard Roundtree appears in a film.
Back to Henson. Given the chance, in a decently thought-out and developed comedy, she ups her game. Her Ali is manic and bossy with her assistant (bordering on distasteful), deceitful with her paramour, insensitive to her gal pals and able to stand up to the brutal, self-entitled co-workers who play her for a wuss. The scattered string of emotions and feelings don’t stump Henson. She towers over all the other cast members with her bravura performance.
Except, the scenes in which she deals with the very enigmatic Sister. Somewhere hidden under a gigantic wig that would even embarrass Diana Ross, lurks the very shrewd and hysterical Erykah Badu, who portrays the psychic who launches Ali’s outer and inner trek to salvation. Smug, ethereal, dizzy and flaky as a pothead, the “Tyrone” singer displays an astute comic nature that equals Henson’s.
Girls Trip is the alpha raunchy female comedy. What Men Want is not as strong. But it grazes that high standard thanks to Taraji P. Henson’s over-the-top performance.