What Men Want (2019)
★ / ★★★★
The problem with “What Men Want,” written by Tina Gordon, Alex Gregory, and Peter Huyck, is that it takes a fantastical premise—waking up the next morning and having the ability to read men’s thoughts following a head injury—and does nothing inspired, surprising, or funny with it. The film suffers from a typical modern comedy malady: actors having to yell their lines as if that could mask the listlessness and boredom of the material. Halfway through, I wished the writers had the ability to recognize that what they were working on was dead on arrival.
This isn’t to suggest that the performers on screen are equally egregious as the script. On the contrary, the lead is enjoyable—as expected given her caliber and charisma. Taraji P. Henson plays Ali, a sports agent so desperate to get a promotion that she is willing to bulldoze through anyone who gets in the way of her goal. As a black woman in a white- and male-dominated workplace, she feels the need to constantly prove herself in order to be considered as an equal. Henson is so enthusiastic in portraying a bossy character—a euphemism—that we can feel the joy behind the portrayal of a mean and extremely uptight persona.
It misses one opportunity to make a genuine or convincing statement right after another. We live in a time when the importance of diversity has made it into the mainstream consciousness. Whether it be of sex, race, sexual orientation, creed, or gender identity, we, as a western society, are aware of the issues broached upon the background of white male dominance. And so why is it that this film is so afraid to tackle real and pressing issues? While it does offer two or three instances where Ali’s gender and race are brought up as a negative within their workplace environment, they are used simply as props; the conflict is never explored in a thoughtful of meaningful way. Yes, the genre is a comedy. But the best comedies are never one-trick ponies. In this case, it is all about the initial shock but no follow through.
I grew weary of the incessant noise. And I do not mean only the constant screaming and yelling. Notice that when Ali is listening to would-be shocking thoughts, the soundtrack is booming in the background. This results in an unpleasant experience; we wish to listen to the thoughts, no matter how random they are, and yet there is wall that gets in the way of us fully appreciating the material. One cannot help but suspect that the use of music is but a mere tool to disguise or hide the more ineffective line of dialogue or entire scenes. The script could have used significant rewrites.
Clocking in at nearly two hours, “What Men Want,” directed by Adam Shankman, is not only devoid of intelligence or insight regarding prejudice, it is also poorly paced. Observe closely at how long it feels for everything to wrap up and it is done in the most ordinary fashion—just so the audience can feel good about themselves. On top of being forced and hyperbolic, the film is a humorless turkey.
Rock of Ages (2012)
★ / ★★★★
Sherrie (Julianne Hough) leaves Oklahoma for Hollywood to pursue her dream of becoming a singer. Her romantic view of the city, however, is tarnished as soon as she arrived when her suitcase full of favorite rock records is stolen. Drew (Diego Boneta), who works for The Bourbon Room located on Sunset Strip, witnesses the whole thing and informs the country girl that there might be a waitressing job for her given that someone had just quit her post. Meanwhile, Mike Whitmore (Bryan Cranston), recently voted mayor, and his wife, Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), plan to implement the “Clean Up the Strip” movement, eliminating the purported negative influence of so-called satanic rock n’ roll, starting with The Bourbon.
Based on the screenplay by Justin Thereoux, Chris D’Arienzo, and Allan Loeb, “Rock of Ages” is a toothless musical with great classic rock songs under its belt but held back by underwhelming renditions, a boring central couple so devoid of inspiration and chemistry that they might as well have been taken right out of a television show doomed for cancellation in five episodes or less, and subplots that tease but never actually deliver.
It seems as though the writing is built around the cover songs which is almost never a good idea. Instead of engaging us in a flow as the story follows a clear path while learning surprising discoveries about people who consider rock music as their religion, the pacing is distractingly episodic and often desultory. The script gives neither time nor room for the characters to grow in a natural and believable way which makes every important change that they must eventually undergo feel like a sham.
While Hough and Boneta is a physically attractive couple on screen, I had no idea why the writers thought it was a good idea to have teenagers sing these songs other than the fact that they wished to appeal to the 12-21 demographic. The pair looks foolish singing the songs because their characters are supposed to radiate cotton candy youthful verve but the songs they sing often have a certain mature angst coursing through them. Because of the polarity between characterization and song choices, it isn’t convincing that they really know what they are singing about. Instead, they come off too cutesy and trying too hard.
The same assessment can be applied to the characters who treat rock n’ roll as a disease that must be expunged. If they consider rock music evil, then why are they expressing their anger and frustration through the genre they claim to abhor? It doesn’t make sense. This could have been circumvented if the writers have been less lazy, eliminating the “good versus bad” mentality altogether, and construct a story worth telling and thinking about. The classic songs that the picture attempts to tackle have lasted through the years for a reason. While most of them are supremely catchy, they are memorable because there’s something about the songs that people across generations find relatable.
The film is at its best when it isn’t afraid to get down and dirty. I loved (and feared) Stacee Jaxx because he is a specific character played to devilish perfection by Tom Cruise. It is difficult to read the man underneath the rock god persona because he is either drowning in alcohol or blinded by the possibility of having sex with women. And yet, once or twice he is given a chance to express that maybe he’s smarter and more caring than he lets on. In this instance, the contradiction works because not only is the actor given the material and time to develop his character, he is willing to take risks in order to challenge our expectations. Hence, when he sings soulful and angry songs, he doesn’t look like a fool: he is able to transport us to the film’s 1987 milieu.
Directed by Adam Shankman, “Rock of Ages” suffers greatly from a lack of ambition by the casting agents and writers. What’s supposed to be celebratory material feels like a dirge that lasts for over two hours.