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When you think of classic low-budget comedies, what films come to mind? For me, it’s Napoleon Dynamite (2004), directed by Jared Hess, which made 46 million dollars at the box office on a budget of 400,000; and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004), the first installment in the infamous cornetto trilogy. Juno (2007) written with pathos and wit by Diablo Cody, is also at the top of that list, as well as Clerks (1994), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1986), and What We Do in the Shadows (2014), Taika Waititi’s tale of New Zealand vampires delivered mockumentary-style.
The success of the abovementioned films can be attributed to a few elements. Either, as in the case of Juno or Frances Ha, a brilliant, well-written screenplay that properly balances drama (to keep the audience emotionally invested) and humor; or, like What We Do in the Shadows, a cast with adequate comedic talent improvising most of their lines and hitting the mark with aplomb. Dinner at my Place doesn’t seem to have much of either; the screenplay doesn’t provide us with characters we can truly be invested in and many of the written jokes fail to land. The performers, all talented in their own right, also fail to bring to the screen the kind of comedic timing and commitment to the bit that a story like this requires.
Here’s the premise: Ready to pop the question to his girlfriend, Chioma, (Sophie Alakija), a young man, Nonso, (Timini Egbuson) finds his plans for a romantic dinner interrupted when his overdramatic ex, Bisi, (Bisola Aiyeola) shows up. For the proposal, he has enlisted the help of some friends, Jay (Charles Etubiebi), and Sandra (Debby Felix) who give him tips and help organize the date. The first few minutes of the film are spent filling the audience in on Chioma and Nonso’s romance, as well as giving the latter some necessary backstory. It turns out the ring Nonso plans to use in the proposal was given to him by his late mother and the diamond is worth about 20,000 dollars. Nonso invites Chioma for a special date at his place and when she arrives, he panics and drops the ring into a bowl of egusi soup– a move that seems like a parody of the Hollywood romantic-comedy trope and, in the same breath, a cheeky embrace of it.
The couple settles down to dinner with Nonso looking more uncomfortable by the second, with good reason. It is about as easy to spot a diamond ring in a bowl of rich egusi as a paperclip in a landfill. Soon, someone else is at the door. Turns out it is Nonso’s ex-girlfriend, Bisi, winning the award for the worst timing of any character in film history. For some flimsy reason, she needs to stay at his place that night. Nonso disagrees. Bisi counters. Chioma finally comes to the door and breaks the tie: Bisi can stay, just this once.
All the while, the best friends of the couple are indoors, ready to burst out of the room to surprise an elated Chioma, but the moment never comes. When Nonso goes into the house to explain the very peculiar situation to them, Bisi sits down to eat. At some point, she begins to choke on something, before eventually swallowing it. Nonso, thinking it is his ring, leads her away to the kitchen to fill her in, to the dismay of his girlfriend, who thinks they’re about to have intercourse.
If this all sounds bonkers, it’s because it absolutely is. But ‘bonkers’ is the bread-and-butter of comedy so that typically shouldn’t be a problem. And it isn’t. These few minutes of unexpected twists and turns and irony form some of the bright spots in Dinner at my Place. I got a good laugh at a couple of Aiyeola’s line deliveries, and Timini’s comedic timing shines like a flash in the pan. This bit ends with Nonso proposing to an agitated Chioma, sans any ring, while Bisi tries to run away with the ring still supposedly making its way through her gut, to no avail. Jay and Sandra come out of hiding and a consensus is reached: Bisi is going to have to pass out the ring, by any means necessary. And this where we see the laxatives.
It is not surprising that Dinner at my Place (2021) began life as a short film back in 2019, also directed by Kevin Luther Apaa, featuring Maynard Okereke and Lisa Yaro as Nonso and Chioma. The reason is that the dinner scene itself as well as the complications surrounding the proposal feel fully realized to the detriment of the other parts of the film. The beginning does the job of providing some context but the second half, which delves into the territory of sophomoric humour, feels completely unnecessary, especially since (spoiler alert) the ring never even left the soup in the first place.
Crass humour can work in a romantic comedy, as long as the filmmakers and actors can pull it off. Here, they don’t seem to be able to, and the story completely loses its way. There is a scene with a staged armed robbery, another where Bisi has to deal with a backed-up toilet in a hotel, and yet another, where we are shown an insert shot of fecal matter— the shot isn’t exactly in-your-face but still too close for comfort.
There is very little change in the characters at the end of the story and this makes the entire narrative feel like an exercise in pointlessness. Bisi merely carries on being Bisi. Jay and Sandra are shipped together, but since that subplot wasn’t well developed, it’s hard to care about their supposed romance in the end. Chioma and Nonso remain in love, the only change now being external. Before they weren’t going to get married because he hadn’t proposed. Now he has, so, now, they will.
Some comedies are improvised. Some are tailored within an inch of their lives. Dinner at my Place occupies a third space, somehow simultaneously too out-there and too rigid, and delivered with crass humor to boot.
It might get a few laughs out of you, but it doesn’t offer enough to warrant a rewatch.