“Hotel Labamba” Review: Murder Mystery Meets Comedy in A Passable Story

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Nollywood’s unofficial Queen of romcoms, Biodun Stephen, who is known for her simple, moderate-budget narratives, takes on the genre of murder mystery in Hotel Labamba. Like regular stories of this genre, the film is titivated with suspense, detective work, red herrings. But then, in projecting this narrative, Biodun Stephen’s signature ingredients of humor and romance are evident, the former sometimes outmuscling the genre’s basic expectations. The film, mostly set in a hotel premises, begins with a prologue in which an unrefined man, Big Berry (Lateef Adedimeji) is surrounded by hotel workers who accuse him of murdering someone, an allegation he denies as they decide to invite the police.

Major actions then drift back to 5 days earlier in the titular hotel where some hotel guests and staff who are central to the story are gradually revealed. Among the guests, there’s Big Berry, who spends money lavishly, and his cohorts, including his fun-loving girlfriend Ella (Lilian Afegbai). Both Big Berry and Ella make a frivolous pair, perhaps incidentally allegorizing the average dating scene in modern Nigeria. Another couple-guests, Daniel (Kachi Nnochiri) and Pearl (Bolaji Ogunmola), a mature married pair, have their affair intersect with the Big Berry clique when Pearl briefly clashes with Ella and Daniel gets curious about the lady too. Then, there is Halil (Atteh Daniel) whose urbaneness gets the attention of the hotel receptionist Carol (Etinosa Idemuda), and even Ella and Pearl. The character of Halil is created as a foil to Big Berry, with comparisons made by guests of the hotel further accentuating this. 

The sudden discovery of Ella’s death in the hotel sets the tone for the conflict as police officers, led by Detectives Zizi (Bimbo Ademoye) and Ofure (Blessing Jessica Obasi), arrive to conduct an investigation that gets resolved with dramatic, laughable ease. Red herrings come through at first when the detectives link characters like Big Berry, Pearl and Daniel to the murder for different reasons stemming from the relationships they formed with the deceased even within the short time of their meeting. But comic overtures and constant, near-impeccable references to the personality of Halil facilitates predictability and compromises suspense. While the essence of murder mysteries lies in the ability of the filmmaker to maintain high-end tensions, Biodun Stephen does less of this in Hotel Labamba as it appears the goal of having the case resolved within the shortest possible time trumps any leaning towards plot depth.

The beautiful thing about the film is how, in little ways, it pokes fun at aspects of Nigerian society in a pitiably relatable way.  Prestigious as Hotel Labamba seems, it lacks functional CCTV cameras, which caricatures the dysfunction and infrastructural deficits in certain organizations. The hotel staff are deliberately created to fit into the comic framework of the film, yet in the bigger picture, characters like Carol the receptionist who dances while on duty and fails to properly document Halil, and Kaosara (Abiola Kareem) who steals a customer’s phone, reflect the poor ethics unprofessionalism in workplaces. While the general attitude of the police detectives casts a positive light on the force, their consensus with the manager to have an internal investigation for such a grievous case as murder detracts from the positivity.

Hotel Labamba gets the best of the creative juices of actors like Lateef Adedimeji and Okey Jude. The character of the former, Big Berry, excels in his unique, basilectal speech pattern; while Okey Jude’s facial gestures illustrate anxiety and  yield humor even without his character having to engage in extensive conversations. 

Delivering jaunty and ephemeral entertainment, Hotel Labamba navigates the reality of pretentious life, also known as fake life, which is rife particularly among young people in modern Nigerian society.  Ambition makes the film sail at first until it capitulates in its final act, giving way to a resolution that feels decent but rushed. As the perpetrator of the crime gets hunted down with alacrity and his intentions are unfurled in a flashback, the film enforces a relevant but hackneyed final point: all that glitter isn’t gold.