Review: Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall are back in ‘Coming 2 America.’ It wasn’t worth the wait.
“Coming 2 America” is the rare sequel whose title sounds identical to the original, which may be the cleverest thing about it. And also the most confusing, bound to throw off anyone trying to delineate the two aloud. You can actually delineate quite easily — try “the original one” and “the lousy one,” for instance — but those homophonic titles are oddly fitting. They neatly sum up the extent to which this new movie exists in its predecessor’s shadow.
That isn’t terrible or surprising. Few sequels escape those shadows and “Coming to America” (1988) casts a pretty long one, as Eddie Murphy comedies go. Revisiting it recently for the first time in decades was a strange experience, enchanting and deflating by turns. Made when Murphy was at peak stardom, the John Landis-directed romantic comedy plays like a dispatch from a more innocent era — and also, paradoxically, a naughtier, less inhibited one. You couldn’t make “Coming to America” now, the logic goes, though that’s hardly kept millions from still enjoying it. For all the dated, off-key moments in its tale of a clueless prince who leaves his fantasy kingdom of Zamunda to look for love in New York, the goofy sincerity of its cross-cultural comedy and the sweetness of its romance remain intact.
Speaking of intact: “Coming 2 America” features, among other things, a very public ritual circumcision, the most out-there example of the script’s generous allotment of genital-attentive humor. Die-hard fans of the original will be pleased to learn that those reliable royal bathers are back for a salacious chuckle or two, and the crown jewels play a key role in setting the plot in motion. Not long after the movie opens, Murphy’s Prince Akeem Joffer — soon to succeed his ailing father (James Earl Jones) as king of Zamunda — learns that he fathered a son shortly before he met his future queen, Lisa (Shari Headley), during that fateful New York trip.
That Akeem appears to have been the victim of a drug-enabled sexual assault is quickly laughed off — or brushed aside, rather, given the script’s dismal ratio of actual to theoretical laughs — as he and his closest confidant, Semmi (Arsenio Hall), return to the scene of their Queens gambit and locate the illegitimate heir. Zamunda may be fabulously advanced, but its laws of succession are as antiquated as Downton Abbey’s: Only a man can rule, which is bad news for Akeem and Lisa’s three daughters, Meeka (KiKi Layne), Omma (Bella Murphy, Eddie’s real-life daughter) and Tinashe (Akiley Love), all brilliant scholars and warriors in the finest Zamundan tradition.
How Eddie Murphy and “Dolemite Is My Name” director Craig Brewer reteamed for “Coming 2 America,” a sequel more than 30 years in the making.
By contrast, Akeem’s long-lost son Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), who is quickly embraced with nary a paternity test, turns out to be an under-employed goofball who could hardly be less qualified for the throne. And so “Coming 2 America” unimaginatively reverses the fish-out-of-water formula: Instead of the wide-eyed Zamundan naif bellowing salutary expletives on a fire escape, we get the street-smart New Yorker gobsmacked by his new palatial digs. (We also get the rambunctious Ugly American duo of Lavelle’s mom and uncle who, as played by Leslie Jones and Tracy Morgan respectively, waste no time offending every delicate royal sensibility.) Life isn’t all fun and games, though: Lavelle will have to prove his worth by tussling with a lion and mastering a crash course in Zamundan history. Meanwhile, stressed-out Akeem must juggle the responsibilities of a new son, the resentment of his wife and daughters and the looming threat of an angry neighboring warlord (Wesley Snipes).
Murphy and Snipes notably did terrific, career-rejuvenating work together in last year’s “Dolemite Is My Name,” whose director, Craig Brewer, also made this movie. Both have the slick, somewhat anonymous watchability that has become the director’s aesthetic signature and in both you sense the actors likely had a good time on the set, feeding off each other’s rhythms and relishing the heft and detail of magnificently multi-hued costumes (designed in both cases by Ruth E. Carter, a recent Oscar winner for “Black Panther”). From time to time, “Coming 2 America” stirs to life, especially when it goes full-on musical pageant and allows a stream of performers, including Salt-N-Pepa and Gladys Knight, to take center stage in lavish numbers choreographed by Fatima Robinson.
But these moments are few and far between and too little of that infectious good-time energy extends beyond the parameters of the screen and into the audience. The lack of a proper audience doesn’t help: “Coming 2 America” would appear to be the victim of spectacularly wretched timing, having waited 33 years to be born only to see its original theatrical distributor, Paramount Pictures, turn it over to Amazon Studios for a princely sum due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps some of this movie’s jokes would kill on the big screen rather than simply expiring as they did on my laptop. In a packed house, the audience might guffaw knowingly at the shoutouts to classic bits (McDowell’s! Bark like a dog!) and burst into applause at every familiar face.
Look, it’s Paul Bates! And John Amos! Is that Samuel L. Jackson? (No, alas.) But that’s definitely Louie Anderson! And Eddie Murphy, Eddie Murphy, Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall and Arsenio Hall! I am referring, of course, to the movie’s obligatory Queens barbershop reunion, where a prosthetics-slathered Murphy and Hall dispense antediluvian wisecracks about race, gender identity and sexual harassment only to grumble about how in these too-sensitive times, you can’t get away with saying everything they just got away with saying.
Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall told Jimmy Kimmel that Paramount forced them to cast Louie Anderson in their 1988 comedy classic “Coming to America.”
That sounds reactionary, but “Coming 2 America” is either too timid (it’s rated PG-13) or too lazy to muster a coherent political stand in either direction. The script (by Kenya Barris and returning screenwriters Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield) attempts to please anyone and everyone: It’s as extravagant an act of fan service, in its way, as the last “Star Wars” movie, updated with the latest in mainstream-comedy defaults. (Incessant repetition of words that aren’t that funny to begin with? Check. Wink-wink meta-banter about the inadvisability of sequels? Check.) The movie tries to compensate for its unapologetic royalism with hand-wringing about the Zamundan patriarchy but stops short of making its female characters too interesting or distinctive. (Nomzamo Mbatha comes closest as Mirembe, a royal groomer who becomes Lavelle’s friend and love interest.)
Akeem is both the upholder of that patriarchy and the only one in a position to dismantle it. If “Coming 2 America” mostly flails as comedy, it’s not without interest as a portrait of middle-aged burnout and compromise. After his joyous work in “Dolemite,” Murphy mostly straitjackets his usual ebullience in a way that feels like another throwback: More than a few critics rejected “Coming to America” back in 1988, after all, with some of them finding Murphy too tamped down after the robust comic showcases of “Trading Places” and the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies. Thirty-three years later, that restraint feels more like inertia with Akeem more stranded than ever between his lost idealism and his father’s authoritarianism. He’s forever out of step with the times as one of his daughters reminds him when she bans an already outdated phrase from his vocabulary.
“Really?” he says, a little crestfallen. “I rather enjoyed being on fleek.” Indeed.
‘Coming 2 America’
Rated: PG-13, for crude and sexual content, language and drug content
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: Available March 5 on Amazon Prime Video
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