For the initiated, going into Kunle Afolayan’s The CEO with high hopes is to be expected owing to his fine work on the Nigerian period piece, October 1. Unfortunately, that means the disappointment is far greater given the end product of Afolayan’s latest offering which proudly wields its pan-African tag but is saddled by a screenplay lacking finesse in its narrative and execution despite some interesting elements.
I am not one to keenly follow the marketing of films. I like to keep the viewing experience as pure as possible. That meant I was surprised The CEO begun to take shape as basically whodunit as it. This film narrows in on five corporate executives the fictional Transwire multinational telecoms company. The Lagos office of this firm needs a CEO and the five are in contention. But when bodies start turning up on a seemingly innocuous retreat to vet the nominees, we realize there is much more at stake than a promotion.
These executives happen to hail from different parts of Africa and there is some continent-trotting to remind us of this fact. We are introduced to Kola (Wale Ojo) repping Nigeria, Yasmin (Fatym Layachi) from Morroco, Riikard (Nico Panagio) from South Africa via Paris, Eloise (Auriele Eliam) from Cote d’Ivoire and Jomo (Peter King) from Kenya. Naturally, they all covet the opening but the final say will be left to hierarchy of the firm. They send in Angelique Kidjo’s Dr. Zara Zimmerman to assess the five to play kingmaker as Afolayan uses her to peel of the layers of the core characters.
Zimmerman’s methods are unorthodox to say the least. Aside her antagonising engagement of the prospects, there’s the weird game of musical chairs that precedes every session she has with them. There is some heavy handed symbolism at work here as the loser becomes the focus of some exploration and more. Consider Jomo who is trying to kick a gambling addiction and has been engaged in some financial maleficence at his office. He confides in Kola who’s a good sport, he isn’t going round snitching. But somehow, Zimmerman is fixated on the Kenyan when the discussions on embezzlement take centre stage.
As the film is draws juice from Jomo’s character, the narrative feels solid enough. He thinks somebody is trying to sabotage his chances at being the CEO. An aura of paranoia and disquiet tension is infused into proceedings as he is right to be wary, but for the wrong reasons – there is something more ominous at work. When the plot moves past Jomo, it starts to falter. The musical chairs lose connotation after subsequent uses making Afolayan’s schematic cornier. Three more characters lose out in Zimmerman’s weird side-assessment meaning we are given gratuitous peeks at the skeletons in their cupboards.
You can’t fault this film for not trying to present relatively three-dimensional characters toying with varying traits – smug, impetuous, anxiety among others. The performances are largely serviceable in this regard. It feels like Afolayan draws a more natural impression from the actors with minimal micromanaging, much like Clint Eastwood in say, Gran Torino. The dialogue switches effortlessly between lingos (French, English, Swahili) adding to the story detail and world building Afolayan and the film’s scribe, Tunde Babalola, appear quite adept at infusing.
The stand-out performance here is easily Ojo as Kola. He doesn’t get the conventional treatment given the other characters as he is the constant in this equation and gets to bounce of the variables in his rivals for the CEO spot. Ojo display more range with his initial wit, and gleeful apathy to a more ruminating undertone as the film unravels. He possesses enough charisma engage audiences (and the neat one-liners help). But even his strong showing is soured by Afolayan’s dour exposition-laden resolution which is even disappointingly (borderline laughably) televisual.
Is there some subtext to this film, is it a metaphor for the cutthroat corporate world – probably, but our director isn’t committed to this idea or much else, outside tying loose ends and establishing neat visuals. The DP work is very good mind you; the use of dimly lit rooms with limited exposure create [sic] a nice aesthetic and align with the underlying mystery. The style sadly does not match the substance as this mystery is ultimately a series of contrivances via some lazy plot holes, mainly in the films attempt at police work.
The CEO lacks a certain incisiveness and perhaps the focus on character over an engrossing mystery is to blame. Even with the leaning towards character development, the rigid storytelling device employed renders the interesting dynamics light weight and forced. All in all, a real let down from probably Nigeria’s finest filmmaker. He should be capable of much better. Maybe a game of musical chairs should’t be played over four days.