Debuting writer-director Nnegest Likke means well with "Phat Girlz," but her inexperience shines through both subjectively and aesthetically. A female-empowerment comedy about learning to be comfortable in your own skin and accepting yourself for who you are is all well and good, but there is a difference between conveying a point in a smart, meaningful fashion and hitting the viewer over the head with a brick for an hour and a half. In penning her script, Likke has gone haywire, choosing contrivances over naturalism and sickeningly saccharine sermonizing over lighthearted moralizing. Meanwhile, most likely because of an apparently miniscule budget, the picture quality is off-putting. For a movie with such a romance-heavy backbone, the cinematography by John L. Demps Jr. and Dean Lent should not have been as hazy, undefined and dreary as it is.
The unsubtly-named Jazmin Biltmore (Mo'Nique)"built-more," get it?is a self-proclaimed "pretty hot and thick" single woman whose dream is to become a fashion designer for plus-sized ladies. Underneath all of her upbeat outward brassiness, however, is a scared individual who, resulting out of society's unrealistic physical standards, is not as comfortable with her body as she lets on. When Jazmin wins an all-expenses-paid vacation to Palm Springs with her mousy, plus-sized best friend Stacy (Kendra C. Johnson) and thinner roommate/cousin Mia (Joyful Drake), they set out for a weekend of relaxation and pampering. Their plansand emotionstake a sudden turn with the appearances of handsome Nigerian tourists Tunde (Jimmy Jean-Louis) and Akibo (Godfrey), who express a keen interest in Jazmin and Stacy.
The first hour of "Phat Girlz" is tolerablea pinch too broad at times and fluffy as all get-out, but nonetheless amusing, occasionally funny, and likable in its preference for studying the characters rather than getting hung up in the plotting. Then, as if with the flick of a switch, the film collapses in bad ideas and embarrassing amateurishness. The falling-out between Jazmin and Tunde is strained and nonsensical, with Jazmin throwing an unwarranted fit, learning that she was incorrect in her accusations, and still walking away angry for no reason other than it was time for there to be a conflict in the story. Another sequence near the start of the third act in which Jazmin has what appears to be a complete emotional breakdown in her bedroom before abruptly working out her problems by looking at an old photograph of her grandmother is misguided in the extreme and laughably unconvincing. And the finale, which piles on one picture-perfect, feel-good conclusion after the next, is so idealized that the film exits reality altogether and becomes a full-on fantasy.
The two saving graces that lessen all the dumbed-down and moldy blows of the screenplay are Mo'Nique (2005's "Domino
") and newcomer Kendra C. Johnson, turning in solid performances as Jazmin and Stacy. Mo'Nique carries the picture with class and effortless humor that doesn't overdo things, even when she gets into a silly "You're so fat"/"You're so ugly" battle of words with an offensive fast food employee. As proven by her stunning turn in "Domino
," Mo'Nique also has the dramatic chops to sell most of her character's hang-ups. The exception to this ability is when she is asked by the script to do things below average intelligence and for implausible reasons. Meanwhile, Kendra C. Johnson fills out the best friend role of Stacy with grace and low-key sweetness, and her internal path toward blossoming from wallflower to tulip is effective. Less endearing is the suggested notion that the only way a person can be beautiful and accepted is if they miraculously win back their eyesight and stop wearing glasses.
"Phat Girlz" repeats to the point of nausea the importance in believing in your own abilities and loving yourself no matter your height, weight, race, etc. It's a valid moral, to be sure, but treated like a Sunday morning church service that won't quit. If that weren't enough, the film soaks in its own rewards by going into detail about Jazmin's fairy-tale triumph over the global fashion world, only to be followed with an inevitable make-up session between Jazmin and Tunde that merrily goes on its way without taking into account that (1) their personalities are not, and never have been, well-matched for one another, and (2) they live eight thousand miles apart. Flatly filmed and grainy enough to sometimes appear to be a home movie rather than a kosher theatrical release, "Phat Girlz" can't even get its look right. One scene, for example, is blurred around the frame for no reason and misleads the viewer into thinking they're watching a dream Jazmin is having while she sleeps. Other scenes look as if the crew ran out of lighting equipment. For a motion picture that screams at the top of its lungs about beauty and style, "Phat Girlz" is strangely deficient in both departments.