Phat Girlz

| April 13, 2006

Nnegest Likké’s Phat Girlz follows the struggles of Jazmin Biltmore (Mo’Nique), a retail saleswoman/aspiring fashion designer who creates hip plus-size clothing. Her manager at the local mall, a smarmy and patronizing white guy named Dick (Jack Noseworthy), thwarts her attempts to show her designs to the chief buyer for a large department store. Depressed and discouraged, Jazmin learns that she has won a trip to a spa in Palm Springs. If this all sounds rather contrived, that’s because it is. The film really begins once Jazmin and her friends arrive in Palm Springs and meet three Nigerian men who, shockingly, love large women.
Writer/director Likké generates a lot of humor from this reversal of expectations. The Nigerian paired with Jazmin’s skinny cousin frequently refers to her with disdain as the “toothpick,” and Jazmin’s plus-sized and mousy friend Stacey (Kendra C. Johnson) enjoys a passionate affair with an African who encourages her to shed her demure look and, indeed, never wear clothing at all.
Phat Girlz resonates when it embraces the satirical possibilities. The local burger joint is called “Fatass burger.” The bank that turns down Jazmin’s request for a loan, with assurances that her race isn’t an issue, is called “First Plantation Bank.” The spa in Palm Springs offers Jazmin and Stacey robes that won’t fit across their stomachs and massage tables that are too narrow to accommodate their hips. Likké presents these moments with humor, but the underlying message that America doesn’t want to make room for fat people comes through clearly.
The film brings into stark relief America’s obsession with being thin, but Likké only goes so far in her analysis of how this operates in our culture. Jazmin is frequently mocked by skinny people. For example, a repeated motif in the film depicts Jazmin punching someone who has called her “fat,” a habit learned in her childhood: “if I can’t be a stick, then I can be a stone.” Yet Jazmin resorts to violence because she cannot answer the inherent accusation that she has caused and in fact deserves her own misery.
Mo’Nique creates a sympathetic heroine, but her voice lacks resonance and she fails to imbue the film with a needed zap of energy. It doesn’t help that Jimmy Jean-Louis, playing Jazmin’s beautiful boyfriend, also fails to convey a needed intensity to keep this film moving forward. The dialogue is clichéd, most egregiously any time one of the Nigerian men speaks. These men aren’t characters at all, really, but more the embodiment of female fantasy. The film is packaged as a fairy tale, so this may be an unfair critique. Yet something in the film feels just a bit off, and it lacks urgency. The fact that the audience at the theater kept relatively quiet only confirms this: I could track the moments when the film “worked” by listening for the audience to call out to the screen.
There a many ways to criticize this film, including complaining about the ridiculous plot device of the contest prize trip to Palm Springs. But when you break the movie down to its most basic thematic statement–love yourself–anyone can relate to that. Not exactly profound, but still something many of us struggle to achieve. What Phat Girlz lacks in sophistication and depth, it makes up for with humor and a lot of heart.

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