by Wilfred Okiche
The buzz surrounding A Place in the stars, the new film by Steve Gukas was pretty good. Long in the making, the film which was inspired by the unrivalled performance of the late Professor Dora Akunyili as the director general of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) ticked off a couple of boxes.
Let us count the ways;
1) It was Mr Gukas’ follow up to the 2002 near classic, Keeping Faith.
2) A much ballyhooed car chase scene was promised.
3) A humongous budget was reported (1million dollars).
4) An appealing, refreshing cast led by Gideon Okeke of Tinsel fame was assembled.
Adding special poignancy to the film was the loss this year, of the formidable professor Akunyili after a battle with an unnamed cancer. Surely, Mr Gukas would be inclined to do Akunyili’s memory the honour of making a decent movie?
Akunyili is in the film all right. She appears in all the glory of her manic NAFDAC days, complete with crazed glint in her eyes, and fire in her voice. In one of her most famous speeches, she rues the menace of fake drugs and decrees that they are worse than the ravages of HIV/AIDS and Malaria. But as it turns out, these stock footages of her, lifted and transplanted into the film’s narrative are the best part of the movie. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong and the film moves from one disastrous scene to the next.
It begins competently enough, in the hills of Plateau state where a father, (Femi Branch)is giving his 2 impressionable lads a life lesson in doing good and earning for themselves, a place in the stars long after they are gone. Fast forward many years later to the year of 2006, when fake drug barons reigned supreme and the only challenge they faced was a zealous woman doing the job of 3 lifetimes.
Mr Branch, seen in the earlier scene has morphed into Pa Dakim (Dejumo Lewis) and his only surviving son, Kim played by Gideon Okeke has become a disillusioned hack, thriving in a corrupt system as the lawyer/fixer to mega clients that can afford to pay his exorbitant charges. While cleaning up after a particular foreign client, Okeke crosses the wrong kind of enemy, an unscrupulous baron, Diokpa Okonkwo (Segun Arinze, hungrily chewing the scenery.) who has no qualms about ordering a hit on him.
Okeke survives this assassination attempt which takes place in a less than thrilling car chase along the Abuja freeway and ends with the wreckage of one of the cars involved. The filmmakers, had they been more astute would have saved this low octane set piece for later in the film as there is honestly nothing more to look forward to in the picture.
Okeke in what is supposed to be his Launchpad role towards movie star territory, moons his way through the picture and is unable to lift his character out of the slump the screenplay has dug him into. He gets most of the screen time and while he scores points for not overacting, also loses plenty more for not being an engaging enough leading man. He appears in most scenes like he was forced to the set at gunpoint and his chemistry with both female side actions (a criminally underused Matilda Obaseki and a hapless Amaka Mgbor) is inert. Save for his good looks, nothing here is going to bring audiences back to see him.
But who can blame Mr Okeke for giving a disinterested performance, considering the material he has to work with? The film takes some perverse pleasure in taking a potentially exciting action story, set to real life events and squeezing all life out of it.
The screenplay credited to Ita Hozaife and JK Amalou is not dramatic enough to hold interest- even when the acting is overly so-, not action-ey enough, not romantic enough, and definitely not thrilling at all. A Place in the stars is instead, stuck in a middle of the road nowhere.
Save for the basics, and predilection for picking out nice scenery, Gukas shows little competence with his direction. He has probably never heard of subtlety before and wields a sledge hammer at the audience, all the time, ordering them to laugh or cry or scream depending on his mood. Nothing in the picture happens organically and the audience is manipulated at every turn into feeling things that they simply cannot feel because nobody has put in work into making them feel anything.
The score and music try to rise beyond the generic but no one comes to see a movie because of the score. The film is set in 2006 but the picture plays like it is dated beyond the effects and intentions of the filmmakers.
Any director would have presented A Place in the stars in this way and it would be terrible. But Gukas, whose profile is enough to inspire certain lofty expectations, proceeds with this effort, to dash every single one of them.
Nothing inspiring, entertaining or admirable about this.
The writer tweets from @drwill20