With her first movie about the social woes of being a fat girl, writer-director Nnegest Likke—a skinny girl—says she aspires to join the ranks of Spike Lee and Oprah Winfrey, according to an article in the African Tribune. Given her weepy sentiment and nervy vision of a big-is-beautiful revolution where “skinny bitches” scarf down on dinner hoping to beef up, Likke isn’t too far from her goal: Phat Girlz’ emotional payoff is cheap like an Oprah exposé and its body-image moralism is preachy like Lee’s Bamboozled minstrel show.
Mo’Nique, too good for her material, plays Jazmin, who makes the best of her full figure by designing flattering plus-size clothing but is constantly brought down by the insensitive treatment she receives from the world around her. In these early comic scenes, Mo’Nique lends Likke’s bland script the bite of her stand-up routines, so even when the movie hauls out flat side characters, including a mandated sassy gay co-worker and callous boss, the actress can be counted on to deliver fresh, unrelenting blows like “You’re so ugly that your birth certificate is an apology letter from the condom manufacturer.” In spite of the soapy mess of a movie that surrounds her, Mo’Nique reinforces an encouraging image of someone undaunted by negativity, who tells her curvy co-worker Stacey (Kendra C. Johnson) during one of her blues spells, “I ain’t trying to be depressed today.”
God bless her soul, Mo’Nique even stays believable as the story requires her to finally fall apart and hit a new self-hating low. Likke uncannily shoots these stretches of Jazmin’s depression about her weight like an exploitive Lars von Trier affair, in muddy video, with the camera swooping in guerilla-style to record the actress’ smudged, crying face and fits of angry furniture-throwing. Although Phat Girlz is packaged as a lesson on America’s destructive marketing of thinness, Likke does fat women the ultimate disservice by making them hopelessly oppressed to the Barbie lifestyle. Their only way out of misery is to be finally worshipped by a foreign culture—here, Nigeria—where perceptions of beauty are completely flip-flopped and it’s Jazmin’s rake of a cousin Mia (Joyful M’Chelle Drake) who’s leftovers to whichever man was unable to catch himself an “African queen.”
Everyone in this delusional fantasy is a tool for Likke to make her grandstanding social message, even the Africans. The movie’s horny Nigerian doctors facilitate Jazmin and Stacey’s “Thick Madame” revolution, but like everything else in this predictable variation on the Hollywood female comeback formula (one IMDb commentator calls it How Stella Got Her Groove Fat), these men never rise above being a gimmicky plot device. The viewer knows Nigerians respect larger bodies, but Likke provides no genuine insight into the culture that fosters that kind of sharp contrast to the Western mentality—indeed, she rarely hits home any helpful observations about why Americans love tiny waists, either. Torn from the same cloth as Tyler Perry’s awful Madea’s Family Reunion, Phat Girlz undoes its seemingly well-meaning purpose with its maker’s inflated agenda and countless contradictions. Likke pretends to reveal the ugly effects of body-conscious fashion but caves into her audience’s need for a feel-good ending with the pipe-dream success of Jazmin’s clothing line. A prop magazine flying across the screen reads, “Fat is the new thin.” Mo’Nique may be big, bodacious and beautiful, but fat will never be the new thin.