Coming 2 America isn’t a good film, but then, it’s not pretending to be. A sequel to the 1988 favourite Coming to America, it’s sloppy and underdeveloped and shamelessly nostalgic and patched together from gags from the old film and even film from the old film.
Still, people raced to watch it, because we’re longing for a movie we can relax into that at least reminds us of the old enjoyment we used to feel at the movies. Personally, I’d pay $30 to see a good new comedy, a really good one, a scintillating laugh-out-loud one. Hell, $40, and then watch it several nights in a row, and off and on through the rest of the year. I can’t afford it, but the price would still be worth it.
And to see that comedy post-pandemic, in a theatre filled with people, all laughing at once in that way that makes the funny bits seem exponentially funnier? I’d go as high as $50.
Coming 2 America is definitely not that comedy, but it’s been very successful already. (Though it can’t match the astonishing megahit status of the first film, which made almost $300 million worldwide.)
People who saw Coming to America when young, particularly with extended families who found they could all laugh together at it, tell touching stories of their grandmothers and fathers and siblings quoting lines, quoting whole scenes of extended dialogue. It was a particularly treasured film for many black audience members.
Set in a fantastical, prosperous, and self-sufficient African kingdom that anticipated Wakanda in Black Panther, the film featured an almost all-black cast, beyond just the starring roles featuring Eddie Murphy as Prince Akeem and Arsenio Hall as his friend and aide Semmi. The film practically foams over with black talent. Not only did Murphy and Hall play multiple roles, sometimes unrecognisable under heavy makeup, but the legendary actor James Earl Jones played King Jaffe Joffer of Zamunda, Prince Akeem’s brusque father; Madge Sinclair (Roots, The Lion King) played Akeem’s mother, the wise Queen Aolean; John Amos (Roots, The Mary Tyler Moore Show) played Cleo McDowell, the father of Akeem’s chosen princess Lisa (Shari Headley), and the proud owner of McDowell’s, the burger joint with “golden arcs” out front that serves “Big Micks” and is in no way related to McDonald’s.
Even many small parts were played by notables such as Frankie Faison (The Wire) as Akeem and Semmi’s landlord, Samuel L. Jackson as the angry robber who tries to hold up McDowell’s, Vondie Curtis-Hall (Chicago Hope, Marvel’s Daredevil) as the basketball game vendor who falls to his knees before the undercover Prince Akeem in Queens, and Cuba Gooding Jr. (Boyz in the Hood, Jerry Maguire, Selma) as the boy in the barber chair.
It was Eddie Murphy’s project. His company produced it, he came up with the story idea, he created his own characters, and he starred in it, back in the day when he was the most bankable star studio heads ever kowtowed to. Prince Akeem Joffer is an unusually restrained role for Murphy, allowing a lot of other comic talent to shine. His Prince Akeem is a sweet-tempered naïf who’s known nothing but royal pampering and beautiful young women strewing rose petals before him wherever he walks.
Seeking a future queen who’s a complete person instead of a gorgeous cipher, he naturally goes to Queens, New York, to find her, accompanied and sometimes hampered by Semmi. Back in the grittier, pre-gentrification days, Murphy as Akeem generates laughs by throwing himself wholeheartedly into what he embraces as the quintessentially American life, equally enthusiastic about his rat-infested apartment and his janitorial job at McDowell’s.
The sequel struggles to cram in all the favourite characters and plot elements from the first film, to the point that it was news that Jackson would not be reprising his robber role, and there was general sadness that the late Madge Sinclair couldn’t return to play the Queen. But just about everyone else is back, and additional roles have been created to accommodate fresh talent and the new storyline.
King Jaffe Joffer’s health is failing, which means Prince Akeem will soon rule the kingdom and have to start worrying about having three daughters in a nation where only a male heir can legally ascend to the throne. Eldest daughter Princess Meeka (Kiki Layne of If Beale Street Could Talk), having trained her whole life to succeed her father, is none too pleased about this.
The warlord ruler of a neighboring country, General Izzi (played with endearing zest by Wesley Snipes), is willing to maintain peaceful relations as long as his daughter marries a son of Prince Akeem. So naturally, Akeem has to go back to now-gentrified Queens to locate his so-called bastard son, Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler), born of a brief — and in Prince Akeem’s case, drugged and unconscious — encounter with Mary Junson (Leslie Jones).
The return to so much material from the 1988 film points up the edgy situations, broad caricatures, and rude humor that were common in mainstream comedies then and are startling now. For example, when Akeem and Semmi get back to Queens, they find everything changed except the My-T-Sharp Barber Shop, which is as run-down and graffiti-covered as ever, and the same four old men — now ancient — are still working or hanging around there. Gabby know-it-all barbers Mr. Clarence (Murphy) and Morse (Hall) and Sweets (Clint Smith), plus perpetual customer Saul (Murphy again), greet the Zamundan visitors with welcoming shouts of “Hey, it’s Kunta Kinte and Ebola!” “Famine and Blood Diamond!” and “Nelson Mandela and Winnie!”
Actors and performers from African countries are also featured. Nomzamo Mbatha, a prominent South African actor, plays one of the main roles as the royal hairstylist, Marembe, who forms a bond with Lavelle, and the Nigerian-American Afro-pop singer-songwriter-producer Davido makes a cameo appearance. They’re part of the overall strategy guaranteeing the film’s international popularity:
Globally, Amazon Studios collaborated with Nigerian and South African local distributors, making the film available in theaters nationwide in both countries. The film is currently No. 1 in Nigeria and West Africa and is the highest opening for a film released in 2021 in Nigeria and West Africa.
There are so many spinning parts in the film — and I haven’t even mentioned Tracy Morgan, Morgan Freeman, Gladys Knight, En Vogue, and Salt-N-Pepa — that Eddie Murphy doesn’t really give himself a lot to do comedically, and it’s surprising how much he recedes into the background for long sequences — to the movie’s detriment.
“Receding” is something he’s done a lot of the past twenty years of his strange career. Every time he gives a great performance that seems certain to announce his return in a big way, he disappears again into sequels of old comedies, animated film voice work, recording music vocals no one wants to hear, or possible retirement.I was sure after watching Murphy outshine everybody in the Dreamgirls cast playing James “Thunder” back in 2006 that he’d be launched into a new career as a serious actor. Same thing when he was so memorable as Rudy Rae Moore in Dolemite Is My Name in 2019, directed by Craig Brewer, who also gave us this messy sequel Coming 2 America.
In 2020, Murphy’s dazzling, Emmy-winning return to Saturday Night Live had everyone buzzing about what he’d do next.In a recent interview, Murphy has attributed one six-year-long absence to the Razzie Awards. He won them for Norbit (2002), The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2007), and Meet Dave (2008). Then in 2010, he got a cumulative Razzie Award for worst actor of the decade and decided getting razzed “ain’t fun.”
“I was only going to take a break for a year — then all of a sudden, you know, six years go by,” Murphy told [Marc] Maron [of the podcast WTF]. “I’m sitting on the couch, and I’m like, hey, you know, I kind of could sit on this couch and not get off it. But I don’t want to leave it, the last bunch of s— they’ve seen me do is bulls—.”
But so far things aren’t looking up when it comes to Murphy’s involvement in more ambitious projects. His next scheduled film is Beverly Hills Cop 4.
Eileen Jones is a film critic at Jacobin and author of Filmsuck, USA. She also hosts a podcast called Filmsuck.
Featured image: Paramount Pictures/Amazon Studios
This article was first published on Jacobin. Read the original here.