What’s most striking about Phat Girlz, the new Mo’Nique vehicle, is not what you think. Yes, she plays a character you know (Jazmin Biltmore), brassy, angry, and smarter than everyone else. And yes, she makes the case, eventually, that plus-size women deserve respect and love and all kinds of sexual pleasure, rather than derision and ridicule. But as first-time director Nnegest Likké’s movie fulfills these expectations, it also offers up some indictments of mainstream media that strike resonant chords with its target audience. Indeed, at times the audience approval of Mo’Nique’s famous sass was so loud that punch lines were indecipherable. Mo’Nique fans love her absolutely and unconditionally. And that warrants consideration.
Phat Girlz begins with Jazmin blissful. She’s carried on a throne by buff men, and as she’s set down, they approach her nether realm with the visible intent to “Bring mama home, baby!” The fact that this gloriously over-the-top first scene is intercut with Jazmin in her bed, dreaming it, sets up her desire, certainly, but it also, in another way, sets up yours. Whether this involves watching Mo’Nique as a character or object, point of identification, hilarity or anxiety has to do with where you sit, of course.
That the movie invites any or all of these possibilities makes it quite like The Parkers, her five-year sitcom with Countess Vaughan (late of Celebrity Fit Club). That is, the show and the movie solicit a range of viewers, deploying images occasionally reminiscent of those critiqued in Bamboozled, clownish, dispiriting efforts to entertain at any cost. Mo’Nique — and more specifically, her costars — perform comedy that involves abuse and ridicule. Whether they come back in triumph or come back for more of the same is less important than the laughs generated by the moments of abuse.
These images might be contrasted with Mo’Nique’s standup work, which is more specifically located (her perspective), more robust, and more effective. Everyone knows that getting over for a “wide” audience means compromising, but the ambiguity in Phat Girlz doesn’t always seem deliberate. (This even while understanding that authorial intention is a fiction and meaning is always left to the vagaries of consumers anyway.)
Jazmin’s desire is thwarted daily, of course, in several ways. First, she’s confronted by her roommate/cousin Mia (Joyful Drake), an aerobics instructor whose preferred daytime costume is a sweet little sports-bra and terry-clothy short-shorts. Her abs are spectacular, her face is a little taut, and she resides in Jazmin’s own memory bank as one of the bijillion “skinny bitches” who tortured her as a child and on into her adulthood, calling her names, pathologizing her appearance, and moralizing her inability to “be a size five.” (These childhood traumas are rendered in still photos, where Jazmin is played by Raven Goodwin, looking dejected or horrified or utterly despondent as thin girls harangue her.)
Working in a department store with her plus-size friend and floor supervisor Stacey (Kendra C. Johnson), Jazmin is further demoralized and frustrated, as still more “skinny bitches” shop and roll their eyes at the workers. In one Jazmin’s-perspective moment, a white woman with a black boyfriend and hair in perpetual windblown-look passes by, glorying in her beauty and her boyfriend’s pride. Worse, sort of, the girls’ boss, Dick (Jack Noseworthy — what happened to his career?) refuses to grant her even a smidgen of access to the store’s women’s line buyer, Robert (Eric Roberts — speaking of lost careers). Jazmin gets piddly pleasure from calling Dick “Dickface,” a joke that wears out in one telling (as does the “skinny bitches” joke, but both are repeated incessantly), but really, she wants to show her designs to Robert: she sews her own styley outfits, and wants to provide for all plus-size women, currently condemned to wearing clothes that look like “upholstery.”
Jazmin gets a modicum of revenge for her diurnal stifling when, following an embarrassment at a club (a man laughs at the very idea that he’d give Stacey and Jazmin a ride home), the big girls plus Mia stop for a late-night meal at “Fatasssbuger.” Here she provides a lively dozens show, though her opponent, a clerk with a pimple on his lip (Charles Duckworth, taller than when he appeared in 13), has no wit. His “you’re so fat” jokes don’t begin to compare with her “you’re so ugly” comebacks, which makes her triumph hollow at best. At this point, you might be wondering what the film has in mind.
A contrivance (Jazmin wins a contest) sends the girls to a Palm Springs spa, where they meet doctors from Nigeria who prefer women of Jazmin and Stacey’s mode, and disdain the preening Mia, who goes on to endure all manner of insult for the rest of the film, as she is judged as harshly as any plus-size woman ever. The film’s logic here — that inverting the hierarchy of men’s assessments of beauty, from thin to large, amounts to retribution and redemption — is surely troubling. It’s not even redressed when, later, this logic appears changed up, somewhat: Jazmin redclares her love for her cousin, in spite of Mia’s seeming behavior as a “hater.” (And there’s one more step, at film’s end, when Mia is fully absorbed into phat-girlz’ self-love, and appears voraciously stuffing her face with platefuls of food: she looks more sad than funny here, and it seems unnecessary mockery of a character who has already paid a price for her “skinny bitchiness.”)
The other part of this logic, that men’s desire determines women’s worthiness, is certainly not unique to Phat Girlz. It’s not even the film’s only means to grant Jazmin, at least, as she does eventually sell her designs and become a spokesperson for something like plus-size women’s rights (Stacey, however, has no such self-identity-making, but rides along as entourage to her friend’s success).
Jazmin’s designated man is the extraordinary hard-abbed object Tunde (Jimmy Jean-Louis), Stacey’s is Akibo (Godfrey). While the secondary couple gets busy almost instantly — he removes Stacey’s glasses and their tongues go down each other’s throats, in overwrought and repetitive sex-as-comedy scenes — Tunde respects Jamzin, and asks her to respect herself. He suggests that calling herself a “bitch” only reinforces a mainstream contempt for women generally and black women in particular, that she is intelligent and worthy, that her beauty comes from within, etc. Jazmin believes this, then doesn’t, then falls into a fit of psycho behavior that leaves her ripping up her bedroom and collapsed in tears (the scene is painful, in part because Mo’Nique, for all her talents, is not a compelling actor, yet, and in part because the point is so clichéd). Her self-redemption process follows quickly, as the movie provides the requisite “happy endings,” about four more than it needs, frankly.
If Phat Girlz is about desire, for viewers even more than actors or characters, it is also about how that desire is constructed by images. Disappointingly, as much as it might have offered alternative imagery, the movie falls back on very familiar imagery. Mo’Nique can be unfamiliar, unsettling, and provocative, but she can also be exactly what you expect. Let’s hope she finds a vehicle that allows more surprises.