In Phat Girlz, Mo’Nique (from “The Parkers” and “The Queens of Comedy”) plays Jazmin Biltmore, a morbidly obese woman who finds love with a ridiculously handsome, muscular Nigerian doctor named Tunde (Jimmy Jean-Louis, who in reality is Haitian and a former model). Later, she becomes an internationally successful plus-size fashion designer, though many of the clothes she purportedly designs are not at all flattering to heavy women (one word, Mo’Nique: sleeves). That the story is nothing more than a wish-fulfillment fantasy is a given — Mo’Nique actually introduced a fashion line, “Mo’Nique’s Big Beautiful and Loving It,” in 2000, only to see it fold two years later — but the unwary moviegoer might not suspect just how thematically harebrained and badly executed the movie actually is.
Phat Girlz starts off as a typically “sassy” comedy about a big girl and her adventures in a hostile world and degenerates into a Sirkian melodrama of self-hatred, and Mo’Nique — who isn’t even consistently successful as a comedic actress — completely lacks both the screen presence and the acting skills to pull off the dramatic scenes. When she binge-eats her way into a nervous breakdown, and the camera comes in close on her tear-streaked, snot-dribbled face, we’re supposed to feel the devastation that our skinnycentric society has wreaked on her self-esteem, but personally I just wanted to smack her upside her whiny, self-pitying head with a can of Slim-Fast.
The movie’s writer/director is Nnegest Likke, who, in photographs, appears to be as thin and conventionally attractive as she is unskilled as a dramatist, yet she sets her movie in a world where everyone except Jazmin and her best friend Stacey is skinny and hostile to fat people. And, though Likke isn’t above making fat jokes at Jazmin’s expense, her script is thoroughly hostile to any character that isn’t fat — unless it happens to be a man with six-pack abs. While Jazmin eventually comes to accept her own hefty figure, she and all the other women in the film continue to expect supermodel-level handsomeness from men. Now, I’m all for empowering the big girls, and there’s something to be said for inverting the usual standards (i.e., a man with money can look like Donald Trump and still get his Melania), but the movie doesn’t go that far — and where it does go is strange and troubling. Not only is Tunde handsome; he’s also wealthy and a doctor, yet Jazmin has a regressive fantasy of him as a “spear-throwin’, rhino-huntin’” African man. When he’s near, she imagines that she hears tribal drums beating and jungle birds shrieking. What the hell is that about?
When Likke isn’t being completely nonsensical, she’s being completely derivative. As Jazmin’s friend Stacey, Kendra C. Johnson looks exactly like the pre-makeover Queen Latifah in Last Holiday — and it figures, given that Johnson previously worked as Latifah’s stand-in in that movie as well as two others. Naturally, we eventually discover that she didn’t actually need those quarter-inch-thick glasses and that, when she takes them off and lets her hair down from that bun, she’s really quite beautiful. Now where have I seen that before?
The problems with Likke’s script are exacerbated by her inexperience as a director and the movie’s incredibly shoddy production: Shot using available light, on digital video that is grainy, contrasty, and badly and inconsistently colored, it looks like something Mo’Nique and a few friends shot with a personal camcorder over a couple of free weekends. In the crowd scenes, Likke doesn’t know what to do with the extras; they shuffle aimlessly around the stars, distracting from the foreground action. The musical selections are obvious and hackneyed: When Jazmin tries to improve her attitude, we actually hear Patti LaBelle’s “New Attitude,” making its 500th appearance in a film about a self-doubting woman who learns to be strong and self-reliant.
But really, for all its flaws, the biggest turn-off in the movie is Mo’Nique herself. Though she has her fans, I find her screen persona — alternately obnoxiously braying and childishly insecure — totally unlikable. Early in the movie, when she defensively declared “I ain’t fat; I’m sexy-succulent,” I actually got a little sick. Setting up a woman like her as a role model for overweight women may do more damage to their self-images than all the fashion magazines in the world could.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 15, 2006 | Comments ()