1. Fifty, as you may have gathered from the inescapable publicity blitz preceding its cinema run, follows four women, all of whom are turning 50. It is a magical age—“the new 30”—and these women are going through changes. Tola (Dakore Egbuson) is a television personality, Elizabeth (Ireti Doyle) is a doctor, Maria (Omoni Oboli) is something…It doesn’t matter, they are all rich. For contrast, there is Kate (Nse Ikpe-Etim) who is a party planner and not quite as wealthy and, as it turns out, not quite as healthy as the others.
Tola is celebrating her show’s anniversary and needs party planner Kate, who has issues of her own and receives a favour from Elizabeth. Elizabeth has an estranged relationship with her daughter but feels justified giving relationship advice to Maria, who Oboli plays as a lost little woman in love with a married man. Set during the week of their birthdays, the film goes around these relationships, uncovering the deceptions and the denial that makes up certain friendships. The title can’t be seen as too specific because the dilemma facing these characters look like they can appear at any age.
For characterisation Fifty gives us quirks. Tola is haughty and impatient, and if industry rumours are believed, may be based on the film’s executive producer Mo Abudu. Elizabeth has a thing for young boys. Maria has a thing for a married man. Kate has a thing for the Lord.
Characters of the other sex emerge as clueless ne’er-do-wells. One man is an adulterer, with a turgid phallus where a heart should be; one is a toy-boy (Emmanuel Ikubese in a version of a role he’s condemned to playing forever), onscreen he feeds and fornicates; another uses his wife’s money for unprofitable schemes. None of these are full characters, and with male folk so cheaply depicted, Fifty falls into the pre-set trap for naïve female empowerment campaigns: it makes man the enemy.
The worn and dubious notion that Fifty believes and helps propagate is that for a woman to ascend, a man’s back must bear the imprint of her stilettos. Perhaps unintended, but this scenario readily ties the fate of the female to the male. Almost of all the key plot points involve a man. How is it empowerment if dependence, no matter how upended, lurks still in the presentation of empowerment?
2. With two feature films and two seasons of the television series Shuga shot, the symptoms of a Biyi Bandele picture are clear. There will be an extreme luxury showcase; the picture shall be surfeit with colour; even in poverty/war/strife/sickness/apocalypse, some glamour residue will survive; and any famous person in sight shall receive a few more minutes of fame.
His first feature film, the cinematic adaptation of Half of a Yellow Sun, was marred by a contradiction: It presented a wartime story that was strangely sanitary. With Fifty, the cleanliness abides but without an ugly war to bounce against, our director is allowed to service a gaudy whimsy. The picture is again colourful and burns a high rate of celebrity per minute. The last few minutes are burdened by the images of pop stars, each of them receiving attention from our star struck camera. And the reason for this is easy to guess: why invite someone famous on set and not give them screen-time?
Here’s the counter: Why invite them at all?
3. Being a vanity product from the ‘hi-brow’ imagination of Ms Abudu, Fifty seeks to capture the lives of the aging upper crust. And this is a legitimate endeavour—if cinema is to remain relevant every reality should be captured. But Fifty is in love with these people and their world that the camera is used as halo, the people become legend courtesy of cash not character—of which only Elizabeth has something of an inner life, imbued thus by the intelligence of Doyle’s acting.
The rich may also cry, says Fifty, but only for the moment. The rich may be depraved but they’ll come out well in the end.
4. Midway in, the film’s admirable cast of actresses settle to their job, which is to save the film from its barely existent artistic ambition. With its controlled melodrama and some fine dialogue at this point, Fifty becomes quite interesting. No longer does the viewer or actor kid herself that she is seeing or acting in something exceptional. Both cast, crew and viewer realise that this is an average chick flick fuelled by star power. So we wait for the well-known path of the genre.
You know how it works: a group of women are friends; there’s a misunderstanding; sometimes caused by a man; friends quarrel and separate; something usually drastic or someone usually unexpected mediates teary conciliation. End.
But even that routine works with a certain logic that depends on a manageable number of incidents and characters. Fifty, however, wants more and thus its latter half introduces new, Very Important Variables to the equation—faith, incest, cancer. It doesn’t know what to do with any of these though; and thus squanders whatever charity the chick flick interlude has dredged from the viewer.
5. At least one review of Half of a Yellow Sun considered it a soap on the big screen. Fifty is even more so. Save for gratuitous shots of the Lekki bridge, visually the film bets small—like it knows its destiny is the African Magic TV station. And arriving at its dismal denouement, Fifty reveals itself as a television series, lacking the best features of both cinema and of a TV series. It lacks the gleeful extravagance of a Telemundo series, it is devoid of the compactness of a feature film, and its storytelling is without the teasing unfurling of a soap.
The final sense of dissatisfaction, of being hoodwinked by hype, that greets the viewer at the film’s close is from its incompleteness. Unsure if it’s for TV or cinema, Fifty opts for limbo. Perhaps the story (as provided by Mo Abudu) had gone too far in the direction of a lazy portrayal of wealth and class that the screenwriters (Bola Agbaje, Kemi Adesoye and Bandele) were unable to rein it in.
Or: as Fifty comes after the second Nigerian season of Shuga, both Bandele and Adesoye, both of whom worked on that series have transferred the idiosyncrasies of television onto the big screen, never minding the temporal constraints of most cinema fare. So that repelled, puzzled and finally angered, by the film’s abrupt closing, the viewer is inclined to thinking over the film’s excesses.
Why, for instance, does the Lekki bridge recur and recur? Is it a visual pun on the links between the protagonists? Is the bridge symbolic of the connection between the film’s storylines? Well, it fails to be both. Instead the famous bridge becomes an anti-symbol: This prettified, glorified chick flick can’t crossover to true glory.