The Hollywood romantic comedy, Crazy Rich Asians, adapted from the best-selling trilogy by Kevin Kwan proved to the world that when it comes to lavish spending or opulent displays, no one does it quite like contemporary Asia’s one percent. Nigeria may be the world capital of extreme poverty, but it is also home to the richest black person on the planet. Aliko Dangote maintains a home in highbrow Ikoyi, Lagos where his neighbors are some of the wealthiest persons this side of the Atlantic, even if they have not been Forbes certified just yet.
Who better to unclutter the glitter that obscures the clustered lives of these crazy rich Lagosians than Bolanle Austen-Peters who was born, groomed and is married into this most aspirational of social classes? After producing the fantastic but little seen Ebola chronicle, 93 Days, Austen-Peters whose previous directing duties have all been on the stage- Fela and the Kalakuta Queens, Queen Moremi the musical– takes on the big screen with The Bling Lagosians.
For this rudderless dossier on the inner lives of the Lagos one percent (the film’s tagline reduces the sample size to the 1% of the 1% actually) Austen-Peters has her eye more on the local box office than anything else. What this means is that The Bling Lagosians does not break new ground creatively. No surprise as originality is hardly a factor when box-office domination is the major objective. Rather The Bling Lagosians has been assembled to appeal to the same crowd that has kept EbonyLife films in business since a certain film executive cracked the code with Fifty.
For one reason or the other, Nigerian movie going audiences tend to get excited about stories of the fabulously wealthy, especially when they are behaving badly. Any contrary opinion would bear the burden of proof as Nollywood has continued to make them. Perhaps some perverse thrills lie in recognizing that behind the iron gates and imposing mansions, the lives of the jet set are just as messy as everyone else’s.
The Holloway family at the center of The Bling Lagosians is one of those old moneyed, storied Lagos families with homes in Queens drive, kids who study abroad and wives with spending habits that would make Sophie Kinsella’s shopaholic heroine retire that title.
The Holloway patron, Akin (Gbenga Titiloye) having lost the political cover of a mentor watches helpless, as government officials swoop in to take control of the business empire he inherited but has so carelessly run to the ground. His wife Mopelola (a delightful Elvina Ibru, having the time of her life) probably should be running the business, but she is more content planning to one up her socialite friends by throwing for herself a lavish fifty first birthday celebration. Naturally this shindig should top the previous year’s.
The Holloway offspring may be trust fund babies, but that doesn’t mean they do not have problems of their own. First daughter, Demidun (Osas Ighodaro-Ajibade) is all frayed nerves, working overtime to save her troubled marriage and keep up the appearance of domestic bliss at the same time. Her hip younger sister, Tokunbo (Sharon Ooja) is a struggling screenwriter trying to break into the film business, but you will never know from her haughty tone and strongly held opinions.
To sum it up, Father has money and women problems, mother has money and social climbing problems, kids have mostly real world problems. But anything that threatens the source of the family wealth also threatens the privilege that allows the kids worry about these relatable problems so indirectly, everyone has money problems as well. Only they don’t know it yet.
Bolanle Austen-Peters has had some lived experience with the worlds that she has created for The Bling Lagosians and while she doesn’t skimp on the production values and design, the film is painfully clueless as to how to offer up new interesting ways of observing the privileged. The basic screenplay is credited to Anthony Kehinde Joseph, working from a story by Chris Ihidero.
The Holloways exhibit the kinds of bad behavior one would expect from the rent seeking privileged class. Akin is terrible at running a business he was handed simply by privilege of birth, he is also a chronic womanizer, but what else is new? Mope and her friends are locked in a never-ending cycle of snobbery and scheming. Isn’t that what bored housewives-from Atlanta to Lekki- do? The kids are not as well adjusted as their parents would like. What parent- rich or poor- doesn’t have such worries?
In place of insight, Austen-Peters turns on dazzling displays- parties, leftover costumes from her stage productions and Toyin Abraham- hoping to make up for the glibness that she is selling. The corporate machinations plotted into the film are lifeless, business intrigues are watered down instead of thickened, and a potentially interesting upstairs-downstairs conflict with the domestic staff being owed salaries is treated as another chance to bring in comedians that aren’t actually funny.
If there is anything that The Bling Lagosians is, it is obvious. Surprises aren’t quite surprising, and actors are taken straight out of central casting, playing recycled versions of characters they have excelled in elsewhere. Think of Titiloye as playing a version of his Battleground personality. Elvina Ibru’s take on the kind of women she no doubt, grew up observing, is the chunkiest role on display even if it ultimately leads nowhere and she plays it with all the subtlety of Meryl Streep in August: Osage County. As a producer from the Asaba wing of Nollywood, Alexx Ekubo is doing entirely too much, adopting a thick, unconvincing Igbo accent.
Following a resolution that does not quite work, it is hard to pinpoint exactly what The Bling Lagosians is trying to say. The love story embedded within isn’t given much room to fly, thankfully and a sub-plot delving into the micro tensions of Nollywood is played too on the nose, complete with name dropping of famous stars.
As a director, Austen-Peters performs credibly enough. Her sensibility is Nollywood-televisionish but she marshals everything into a package that at least gives viewers enough eye candy to tide them over, till Mo Abudu decides to come get her coins.