Niyi Akinmolayan’s The Set Up is a smart Nollywood ride

Is 2019 the year of cinematic restitution?

EbonyLife made Oloture, the first of its films to not collapse under the weight of its own colourful shallowness. Ishaya Bako directed 4th Republic, a film that partly redeemed his early promise.

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Now it is the turn of Niyi Akinmolayan. He, director of the unimaginative Wedding Party 2 and the vapid celebrity vehicle Chief Daddy, has now made The Set Up, the best film in his oeuvre. He is still interested in crime stories as he was back when he directed Out of Luck, but the new picture has been purged of the amateurishness of the older film.

As usual, his picture is based on a screenplay by Naz Onuzo, a writer who, like Akinmolayan, has at least half of his sensibility shaped by Hollywood. Adesua Etomi-Wellington is again his lead actress. So it’s a familiar group of people, only this time, they have produced something remarkable. Akinmolayan has achieved a spare elegance missing from his earlier work.

The Set Up starts properly with two young women Grace (Kehinde Bankole) and Chike (Etomi) making a clean break from the former’s family, an entity led by a father who has no problem prostituting his daughter. Chike’s dad is a deceased gangster. You can read this as two women leaving their abusive men but what follows suggests they can’t quite fully abandon the seeds those men have sown.

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The young women become drug dealers and, although we are never shown any of their runs, we learn they have been successful. Early in the film, the NDLEA raids their place but they escape after a woman tips them off. This woman wants them as employees.

Because it’s a film with a a cold open, the opening credits come late. And when it does, the filmmakers take a creative approach and stage a vaguely James Bondian sequence that is a part of the story about to unfold. Typically, the opening credits present an opportunity to check your phone but you’ll be wrong to do so.

Grace and Chike go to work for Madame (Tina Mba), a Nigerian Jay Gatsby. She hosts lavish shindigs at her “private members’ club” — which is taken for a whorehouse more than once — and we are never sure what she does. But whatever it is, it is not strictly legal and involves drugging rich men and blackmail. As the film progresses, her motivations become clearer. Like Fitzgerald’s hero, she is driven by love, loss and revenge. I would pay to see an entire film about her past.

Joining this group of not-very-good women is Edem (Jim Iyke), a man who first appears to only want to marry a rich heiress. His target is from the Elesho family. The family’s patriarch is dead and survived by a wife (Joke Jacobs), the heiress Motunrayo (Dakore Egbuson-Akande) and a son Bamidele (Ayoola Ayolola). A painful secret is buried by the family but there will be a lot of exhuming. It is, if you excuse the pun, quite the set-up.

Each of the women mentioned so far has her story presented in different overlapping sections, and to help us out, parts of each sections are dated. We travel to the 1990s and end up in 2019. The non-linear chronology is handled very well, even when the costuming and characters seem inconsistent. (In one sub-plot, two different actresses are used to play the heiress over decades but all other major characters are played by the same people.) It’s clever storytelling and when the interactions start to take place it’s easy to follow.

It should be clear by now that The Set Up is one of those films with a lot of plot. And as with films of the sort, there is always a danger of over-complication and this film doesn’t escape the charge fully but the layers of plot also mean there are enough turns to keep the story from stalling.

This over-complication means that we don’t get to see a lot of the female friendship past the first act — but the political subtext of the wholesomeness of female friendship is firmly in place, and as Nollywood has made a fetish of women as rivals or frenemies, Grace and Chike are near-revolutionaries. Together they invert the relationship between a pair of older women in the film. Makes you wonder if the screenplay isn’t inadvertently suggesting that the future of female empowerment is female solidarity rather than female rivalry or competition. (It is worth noting that the cause of friction between the older women is a man.)

Two aspects of the picture are particularly commendable: Most of Kolade Morakinyo’s sound design — the score is a gem — and the atmosphere created by cinematographer Muhammad Atta. None of the actors gets to steal any scene, even as this is a film featuring Joke Jacobs and Tina Mba, two avatars of Nollywood Attention Seeking Acting. I thought it the first time that Mba’s inscrutable smile has served a narrative purpose.

One reason for the uniform competence of the acting is that the film’s very plotty plot is its true star. And yet, perhaps because she’s in the starring role and is something of a muse for Akinmolayan, Etomi-Wellington is the only actor really given an opportunity to outshine the others. But her co-actors are so on-point that she can’t do that without playing five different characters. In fact, in one key scene, she fails to rise to their level.

In the scene, which she shares with Egbuson-Akande, she is supposed to be a lady about to be thrown out of her apartment. To the heiress, she is a girl in need; to the viewer, she is faking. For some reason, this presents a dilemma for Etomi-Wellington, who seems torn between showing sincerity to the heiress within the universe of the film and showing the viewer in the real world that she is faking. She makes a poor decision and ends up a caricature that seems teleported from a different film. Her wrong decision reminded me that it normally takes a great actor to play a character who is bad at acting.

There are other spots that won’t fool anyone but the most incredulous, including (light spoiler) a death in a bathtub. And for set pieces that involve a lot of moving parts, you want to ask how every minor character involved figured out their parts without an elaborate meeting or conference call. In this regard, there is a scene set in a hospital that is a headscratcher. And as the film nears its denouement, it piles on a how-many-narrative-twists-per-frame sequence. But it doesn’t get out of hand, perhaps because the filmmakers understand that after one too many twists in a story, you are tempted to ask one question: does any of the twists matter?

Fortunately, the twists matter largely here and the plot problems are only magnified after the film ends. While still playing, The Set Up seduces its viewer effectively. And that is to be praised. As a screenwriter friend said to me, there are bad films that have plot holes. The Set Up is not in that category. It is impressive enough that I suspect half of its viewers will find excuses for the plot holes.

The other half will simply buy another ticket and re-watch the film for clarification. For the most part, both groups will be reasonably satisfied. I was.

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See it when you can

Nigeria’s most acclaimed writer-reviewer. Business: www.criticsandbylines.com.

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