Before Kunle Afolayan made Araromire (Figurine), the defining work of his directing career so far, he had some success with Irapada, a chilling tale of sacrifice and redemption. Post- Figurine, he attempted a change of pace genre with the comic misfire, Phoneswap, before getting his groove back by blending history lesson and patriotic preaching in one sprawling, yet imperfect production, October 1.
Afolayan is back to contemporary times with his latest effort and for this merry go round, he turns his big budget lenses to big business, boardroom politics and corporate espionage. Afolayan understands perfectly well that in delivering blockbusters like he is wont to do, scale is important. He tries his best with The CEO to up the ante of a story that could have done perfectly fine as a Nigerian narrative to one with continental and even global aspirations.
He does this by employing his considerable influence to seek out sponsorship deals from places other filmmakers may have trouble getting access to. Armed with a bigger budget,- plus goodwill and acclaim,- than most of his contemporaries, Afolayan gathers a sprawling trans-continental cast to play out his fantasy of corporate ruthlessness where all is fair in war and for the ultimate prize of the top spot at an international conglomerate’s Africa offices, cold blooded murder is only par for the course.
Written by regular collaborator, Tunde Babalola (October 1,) The CEO is set in multiple locations around the world (even if some of them are only singular, very brief scenes.) France, South Africa, Kenya are all highlighted briefly, before the party lands in a private resort in Lagos, Nigeria for the main course.
5 business executives from various parts of the continent who have all applied for a chief executive position are gathered for a week long business retreat in Lagos by the Paris based headquarters of the multinational telecommunications company seeking to select only one of them.
There is the Nigerian lothario with the questionable knack for always being in the thick of things (Wole Ojo), the Ivorean dealing with family issues back home (Auriele Eliam), the cocky South African considered a shoo in for the job (Nico Panagio), the shady French expatriate dogged with rumours of cutting corners her entire career (Fatym Layachi) and the hard gambling Kenyan facing a crisis of confidence (Peter King).
Only one can be named CEO, yet at least one of them must also be responsible for the series of unfortunate events that begin to occur as soon as they are marooned together on the scenic island. Add to the mix, the mysterious all seeing consultant/facilitator, Dr Zimmerman (Angelique Kidjo) who seems to know where all their skeletons are buried.
Like October 1 before it, The CEO is a pretty picture. Beautifully shot and expertly rendered, the film is once again, less the expression of an inspired auteur, and more the product of his strategic collaborations with various masters of their craft, in departments like production design, cinematography and sound. Afolayan’s primary task mostly is to assume the role of the glue that holds the entire cast and crew together. He does this very well too, except in places where he doesn’t.
Afolayan has earned his stripes but it is important that he place on retainer, someone representing quality control to nudge him whenever he ventures into excess. The unnecessary length of The CEO is a first sign of such excesses. The film starts out slow and even after setting up the plot, these long scenes that fail to build tension for what is essentially a whodunit let his film down immeasurably. The scene with Adekunle Gold could have been better rehearsed or cut out altogether, ditto the masturbatory one Afolayan inserts of himself and his famous friends partying.
The plot may be novel territory for Nollywood but a million and one Hollywood films have played around with the concept. Babalola’s job is to bring a unique twist to the genre but anyone familiar with his work knows he is more comfortable Xeroxing than innovating. The CEO is riddled with every single whodunit cliché you can think of; from a lead character dishing out kisses- or in this case,- hugs- of death, to the unmasked killer confessing their crimes unprompted.
The stunt casting of music legend Angelique Kidjo in her first film role, as the clairvoyant Dr Zimmerman works well because Kidjo is physically perfect for the role and brings along a movie star presence that keeps her on the likeable side despite her unnatural acting instincts. A more perceptive director could have hammered a more believing performance out of her but Afolayan has no patience for that. The childhood innocence of the musical chairs game may never be the same again after Kidjo turns it to psychological and physical warfare.
Instead of wrapping up his film about 30 minutes earlier, Afolayan drags it along to an ending that is at once as nonsensical as it is unsatisfying. The script tries too hard to tie up loose ends but does so in an inelegant manner. New characters are introduced, some old ones reveal themselves, the plot collapses, the Chinese are involved, it all doesn’t quite add up. In reaching for a seemingly crowd pleasing ending, Afolayan endorses his writer’s creative slopiness and does his movie the greatest disservice.
The CEO ultimately rewards an undeserving character just so everyone can go home with a sense of satisfaction and all the technical brilliance in the world cannot save this lapse in judgement for a film that is essentially plot driven.