When the most influential filmmaker of a generation decides to join forces with the continent’s most important platform for small screen content to make a major feature film, it is hard not to feel apprehensive. And for good reason too.
How do you marry two distinct thematic styles; one that has thrived on the grand and the loquacious, with another that is more mass market driven and aims for the lowest possible denominator? Can highbrow meet lowbrow and find common ground to coexist? Can Kunle Afolayan; he of the ambitious but ultimately flawed spectacles like The Figurine and October 1 resize his outsize vision to fit into Africa Magic’s more modest abilities?
Omugwo is proof that in the quest for commercial and critical acclaim, all is fair, and tags such as strange bedfellows are more suited to human relationships than entertainment. After all, Martin Scorcese has been to HBO (Boardwalk Empire, Vinyl), David Fincher’s been in bed with Netflix (House of Cards) and even the redoubtable Woody Allen took his fast talking shtick to Amazon Studios with the unfavourably received Crisis in Six Scenes.
On deeper introspection however, the creative collaboration between Mr Afolayan and Africa Magic actually makes sense. For while Afolayan’s films have always strived to be notches above the cut, they have all at the same time, appealed to as wide an audience as could be managed, even as he strives to balance product placements and twisty narratives with delivering endings straight out of the Hollywood feel good playbook. Nobody of course does mass market like Africa Magic. And 2016’s The Wedding Party has proved what strategic collaborations can do.
Tradition demands that every time an expectant mother from the South Eastern region (and many other places along the Southern belt) puts to bed, her mother is excited to pack her stuff and move in with the new parents, usually for a period of three months. During this period, the new mother is expected to do as little as possible while her mother (or mother-in-law) showers her with care and affection.
For the newlyweds Raymond (Ken Erics) and Omotunde (Omowunmi Dada), the arrival of their first baby comes with plenty of joy and drama. She is a highflying architect, supervising skyscrapers at the Eko Atlantic construction hub; the kind of high roller who works up until her expected delivery date is around the corner and goes into labour while on the job.
Her hubby, Raymond Ray is a more laid back fellow who documents his domestic affairs on his gig on Radio Lagos 107.5 FM where he works as an on air personality. He likes his hair natty and tries as much as possible to be a decent husband and father, but they are obviously out of their depth with the arrival of the new bundle of joy.
Naturally, Omotunde’s mother, Candance (Ayo Adesanya) should be the helper of first choice but as a colourful woman about town, – we are never quite told what exactly she does for a living,- Candance has plans of her own and they don’t include the earlier than expected arrival of a not-quite-wanted grandchild.
Chimamanda (Patience Ozokwor) capitalises on this vacuum and manipulates her son into having her over for the three month period. Candance, vain and petulant as she is, imagines her status under threat and decides she wants in too. Both matriarchs, formidable in their own rights seize upon the home of the hapless couple, causing mayhem and settling a few scores. They teach some life lessons too. This after all an Africa Magic production.
The story is one you may be familiar with but Afolayan finds a fresh way to tell it, employing jokes at almost every turn and sustaining them with a crisp pacing. Omugwo overcomes a title card that has to go down as one of the ugliest job ever committed to film. It also survives an expository first act that suffers from acute overacting, especially with Omowunmi Dada in an intensely dramatic labour room scene.
But the screenplay written by Kemi Adesoye (Phone swap) rallies and weaves genuine comic moments from everyday domestic living. The writing is impressive for the most part; simple yet witty and the cast deliver their lines with appropriate comic timing.
Afolayan also rallies by bringing a certain lightness and agility with the way he gives Ozokwor’s Chimamanda a movie star entrance. It would be tempting to assert that Ozokwor seizes control of the film from the moment she walks in but that would only be telling half the story as Ayo Adesanya matches her at every turn. Both ladies make the experience of Omugwo more pleasurable.
Ozokwor who made a killing playing mothers from hell on Africa Magic type films is quite the opposite here as she carries the film’s moral burden, gleefully lighting up her scenes of mischief but doubling down to provide rock solid support in times of need, as she does in the film’s most emotional scene where she admonishes her petulant boy.
Candance as embodied by Ayo Adesanya isn’t a real person as much as she is a clown. Ms Adesanya is clearly having all the fun as she takes the character to comedic heights that she has not been allowed to explore in ages. Even when the character is written as inconsistent and goes for lazy tricks, Adesanya manages to shine through. You actually fear for the poor baby every time her Candance picks her up.
They say as a director you test your strength working with babies and animals and Afolayan proves his competence with the scenes involving baby. He pays his debts by sprinkling nods to Lagos state government, Tecno phones and his own work. At least he stays out of the picture this time.
The pairing between Omowunmi Dada and Ken Erics works splendidly as they are entirely believable as a couple. Dada has a wholesome screen presence and Erics seems more at home with comedy as he is allowed to flex and expend his energies this time around. It is the loosest he’s been for a long time and he acquits himself credibly.
Omugwo takes time to speak to some serious themes alongside the comedy; one fine scene demonstrates the information overload that new mothers have to process as they make decisions for their new arrival and another touches on the modern woman’s role in the home and the toll that babies take on the couple’s relationship. There is a bit on postpartum depression that does not quite settle in organically but at least the intentions are noble. The screenplay runs out of steam at some point and Afolayan isn’t quite sure how to end it.
More accessible and enjoyable than the award winning director’s recent work, and funnier than Phone Swap, his earlier attempt at comedy, Omugwo isn’t merely a side hustle; an Africa Magic project directed by Kunle Afolayan. It is a Kunle Afolayan film. Would be interesting to observe how profits are shared.