Reviewer: Esosa Omo-Usoh
Romantic comedy is a genre of movie that Nollywood typically does not excel in. Now, imagine pairing that genre with a storyline that requires a culinary flair and you would be making a bold statement with a movie that, as it were, takes a road less travelled in Nollywood. And that road is where The Royal Hibiscus Hotel ventured but does it pass the taste test?
The Royal Hibiscus Hotel opens in London with Ope (Zainab Balogun), a sous-chef in a restaurant is feeling the heat from her Gordon Ramsay-wannabe head chef. But soon, we learn that the heat from Hell’s Kitchen is not all she has to contend with. Her dream of starting an Afro-fusion cuisine restaurant fizzles just as quickly as her parents back in Nigeria crank up the heat on their wiles to get her to visit home.
Gordon Ramsay-wannabe with more tattoos than charisma eventually stretches her pasta beyond elasticity limit and she quits. This is where the movie takes on a decidedly Garry Marshall-esque rom-com inspiration. There was the accidental bump between Ope and a stranger in the airport that could very well have been inspired by Vivian and Edward’s chance meeting on Hollywood Boulevard in Pretty Woman.
Ope returns home to Nigeria to a royal welcome from her parents, Segun and Rose Adeniyi, played with the effusive pizzazz of stereotypical Nigerian parents by Jide Kosoko and Rachel Oniga. And that’s when things really start to cook up. As it turns out; the hotel wasn’t doing too well and an acquisition lifeline had been thrown to Chief Adeniyi by a mystery investor acting through his front man, Martin (Deyemi Okanlawon). This again could very well have been inspired by the Edward Lewis/Phillip Stuckey and James Morse ship building company acquisition in Pretty Woman.
Ope has her plate full trying to juggle being chef in the hotel whilst being sabotaged by her sous-chef (Charles Inojie), fending off overtures from an old flame (O.C. Ukeje) and resisting the heat from a possible new flame. These dynamics play out nicely heading towards their predictably Garry Marshall-esque happily ever after resolution.
As Ope, the ever-delightful Zainab Balogun found the perfect vehicle to showcase her acting chops. Not that there has ever been any doubt about her acting abilities. Her Wonu in The Wedding Party and The Wedding Party 2 (more the former than the latter) whilst marred by overacting did let on that given the right script and opportunity to deploy her strongest assets (exquisite diction, flawless charming looks, subtle facial expressions that speak louder than an impassioned monologue), she would run rings around Nollywood’s supposed finest.
Balogun’s Ope gave The Royal Hibiscus Hotel’s best performance. The movie rode daintily on her shoulders and she imbued it with the charm it required. She was demure when the character needed to be but was never overshadowed. She gave bounce to the romantic scenes leaving you to focus on her whilst affording her leading man cover to hide behind.
The romantic scenes between her and Kenneth Okolie’s Deji suggested more than a passing inspiration from Pretty Woman, granted that top of the stairs scene was more Jack and Rose in Titanic than Edward and Vivian in the hotel bar scene from Pretty Woman. But that ride in the back of the car on the way to a roof-top dinner at Eko Hotels had all shades of Edward and Vivian in the limo drive to the airport enroute the opera.
Although editing and hands only shots suggested some of the cooking scenes were done by a stunt double, Balogun was convincing enough as a chef that one wonders that, perhaps, she should have been left to shoot those scenes herself.
A big disappointment in The Royal Hibiscus Hotel was the cameo by Olu Jacobs and Joke Silva as a geriatric couple still getting their freak on. How do you feature Nollywood royalty in a movie and reduce their cameo to plebeian irrelevance?
The Royal Hibiscus Hotel took a road less travelled in Nollywood and whilst it was not quite one-small-step-for-man-and-one-giant-leap-for-mankind epic, it was a deservedly revealing step for Zainab Balogun, and a step in the right direction of where the new Nollywood is and should be heading.