1988’s Coming to America is possibly the last ‘classic’ Eddie Murphy film. After that, most of his films either missed the mark critically or commercially, oftentimes both. Personally, I do think some of his later films are a little underappreciated. For all its flaws and wasted potential, 1989’s Harlem Nights has a lot to offer, especially with the pairing of Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx. 1990’s Another 48 Hours is an enjoyable, if formulaic sequel to the 1982 buddy comedy classic. I also think 1999’s Bowfinger, which paired Murphy with Steve Martin and director Frank Oz, is criminally underrated.
Upon its release, Coming to America had a rather lukewarm critical reception, but audiences loved it. Even though Murphy would eclipse its box-office success with the Nutty Professor (I personally prefer The Fatties) and Dr. Dolittle films (I prefer them over whatever the hell Robert Downey Jr.’s version was supposed to be), none of them are as warmly remembered as CTA.
Before watching its sequel, I decided to give CTA another watch. How does it hold up? Goddamn well! Though its narrative eventually settles on a rather generic romantic comedy route, it’s still as funny as it was in 1989.
CTA is a true reminder of why Eddie Murphy was a comic superstar. The multiple roles donned by Murphy and co-star Arsenio Hall (courtesy of some fantastic make-up work by Rick Baker), still bring forth a multitude of laughs.
Now I’ll be honest, as much as I love the original CTA, I just couldn’t get excited about the announced sequel. Being unaware of its creative genesis, it’s hard not to have the sneaky suspicion that this film purely exists for financial gain, or to rekindle some of Murphy’s past glories.
But I’m a natural cynic, a big old party pooper. It’s in my nature. I’ve watched too many sequels. I’m too aware of the Hollywood machine. Passion for the craft be damned. Celebrities love the attention, and even more than that, they love getting oversized paychecks. The innocent young man that started SNL in the early eighties is long gone. Now, he’s a superstar. One of the most famous Black comedians of all time.
Unfortunately, Murphy’s superstardom has waned over the years, courtesy of some truly baffling career decisions. In fact, looking at his filmography, the number of duds he starred in probably outweigh the good ones. I think many people have still not forgiven him for Pluto Nash.
So what do you do in such a situation? Well, you star in a sequel to a previously successful film! Easy money, right? You can bet your ass that Mike Myers will do this soon enough in Austin Powers 4 — though I’d rather see him do a sequel to The Love Guru, just because it would be such a wonderfully bad idea.
So here we are. More than twenty years later, we have a sequel to CTA. Almost all of the original cast is back. All of them look so much older. The trailer was released and it seemed to confirm my cynicism. It honestly reeked of desperation. To make up for its lack of jokes, it filled its two-minute runtime with familiar faces. Remember the three old geezers in the barbershop? Remember Sexual Chocolate? I member!
Not only that, it’s rated PG-13. A PG-13 sequel to an R-rated comedy is a massive red flag that the film will probably suck. It’s especially egregious that Coming 2 America follows up Eddie Murphy’s return to R-rated comedy, Dolemite Is My Name, a film that is rightfully hailed as Murphy’s comeback. All of us Murphy fans mourn the days when Eddie Murphy wasn’t headlining forgettable family comedies, or playing a talking donkey for the umpteenth time.
One major positive is its director, Craig Brewer, who also directed Murphy in Dolemite Is My Name. It would have been nice to have Landis return, but apparently, he and Murphy were not on good terms while making the original CTA — though they made up a few years later with Beverly Hills Cop III. Landis’ own career slump after CTA, especially after helming so many noteworthy classics, is undoubtedly worse — even though I’m personally a huge fan of his vampire comedy, Innocent Blood.
Could Coming 2 America surprise this cynical reviewer and be an actual good comedy sequel? Is it going to be a little more like Bill and Ted Face the Music, or will it be more like Caddyshack 2?
Remember Coming to America?
King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) of Zamunda is dying. As the pampered Prince Akeem (Murphy) is about to ascend to the throne, the neighboring kingdom of Nextdoria, ruled by the tyrannical General Izzi (Wesley Snipes), is threatening a violent takeover of Zamunda.
Izzi still holds a grudge against Akeem for leaving his sister Imani (Vanessa Bell Calloway) at the alter. Also, commanding her to bark like a dog and not telling her to stop had some massive consequences to her personality. The only way Akeem can make amends is if he allows his daughter, Meeka (KiKi Layne) to marry Izzi’s foppish son, Idi (Rotimi). But Meeka’s strict feminist principles and independent spirit make her completely incompatible to marry such a fool.
But there might be a different solution. It turns out that Akeem actually had a son in America. This happened when he and his man-servant Semmi (Arsenio Hall) were barhopping years ago. Akeem found himself drugged by the woman he encountered that night, and therefore he didn’t remember the event at all.
If Akeem can find a male heir for the throne, and have him marry Izzi’s daughter, he can possibly avert war between their two nations. So Akeem, together with Semmi, travels once again to America to find his son.
I Remember Coming to America!
From the get-go, it’s obvious that the filmmakers were a fan of the original. There are countless references and surprise cameos from the original. Basically, it’s an onslaught of Memberberries. Hey, remember McDowell’s? Remember Soul Glo? Remember Paul Bates’ high-pitched singing? Remember Louie Anderson? Seriously, I could fill this whole review about how many references there are from the original film. I’m almost surprised they didn’t get Cuba Gooding Jr. to return as the young patron in the barbershop.
Unfortunately, most of the humor is derived from referencing the original film. Some of these references are genuinely funny, such as seeing how Cleo’s plagiarizing (John Amos) of McDonald’s has only gotten worse. There are also smart references, one for true fans — watch out for the painting of Randolph and Mortimer Duke — but many of them feel forced. None of them even feel like real jokes. Just a reminder that we’ve seen this thirty years before in the original CTA.
For example, you have the three old geezers from the barbershop. Logically, after thirty years, they should be dead. But they look exactly the same as they did then. It’s fine that they are still alive, but why isn’t Akeem making any references to this? Why aren’t they looking more ghoulish? The reason they look the same is that they didn’t want to stray too much from the original.
There’s even a poor attempt at meta-humor with characters mentioning how they hate belated sequels to movies and how they can ruin the original. This would only work if Coming 2 America had anything interesting to offer other than comfortable nostalgia, but it doesn’t.
Hey, Tracy Morgan and Leslie Jones Are In This!
If you’re excited about seeing Tracy Morgan and Leslie Jones in the film, hold on a second. Tracy Morgan is literally JUST THERE. He gets almost nothing to do. They do try to create some rivalry between him and Semmi, but it goes nowhere. Leslie Jones gets a little bit more to do but, unfortunately, most of her quips will barely conjure up a chuckle.
It’s baffling that they weren’t given anything interesting to do. It seems that either Murphy or the filmmakers just wanted them in the movie. They probably hoped that their improvisational skills would give this film a boost of laughter, but nope.
Perhaps it’s because of the limitations of the PG-13 rating or the stuffy script. In either case, it’s a damn shame.
Jermaine Fowler… Boo!
Shockingly, Murphy takes a step back in the second half of the film, it focuses more on Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), Akeem’s son. Unfortunately, Fowler, no matter how hard he tries, is not leading man material. He’s just not charismatic enough — though perhaps this due to automatically comparing him to Murphy, who is one of cinema’s most charismatic comedians.
I’m not aware of Fowler’s comedic talents but if he has some, they’re not served well in this film. His character is mostly unlikable, and though the film tries to make him more likable, especially with his affection for the royal hairdresser, Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha), it’s not remotely interesting or heartfelt. It all feels hopelessly artificial.
The sad fact is that every time Coming 2 America focuses on Fowler, you’re just waiting for either Eddie Murphy or Arsenio Hall to return on screen.
The only welcoming new addition to the world of Zamunda is General Izzi, courtesy of Wesley Snipes’ fun performance. Snipes might be known mostly for his action-movie chops, but he showed himself to be a more than capable comedic performer in the past. Before he was the vampire-slaying Blade, he made us laugh with films such as White Men Can’t Jump or the delightful drag-queen comedy, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (yes, that’s the actual title).
As you probably remember, Snipes returned to cinematic comedy with Murphy’s previous Dolemite Is My Name, playing the egotistical director, D’Urville Martin. As the maniacal General Izzi, Snipes once again delivers the goods. From the moment Snipes swaggers confidently into Akeem’s palace, you can see how much fun Snipes is having in the role.
Having said that, there’s not much pay-off to his character. At first, he seems to be a genuine threat, but the film resolves the main conflict far too easily. To say it whimpers into an anti-climax would be an understatement.
“Just Let Your Soul Glo! Just Let it Shine Through”
I wouldn’t say I was miserable watching Coming 2 America. If you’re a fan of the original, it’s hard not to smile seeing all these characters back. It’s nice seeing Louie Anderson for a bit. It’s especially nice seeing 90-year old James Earl Jones again on screen.
I was into it in the first half, but once Akeem brings his son into Zamunda, Coming 2 America quickly loses steam. Once you take off the nostalgia goggles, you realize you’re just dealing with a typically hollow sequel. The basic problem of Coming 2 America is that it struggles with its own identity (or a lack of one). It coasts on the nostalgia of the original film. Besides the occasional chuckle (mostly from Wesley Snipes), anything that is original fails to bring any noteworthy laughs.
Did the PG-13 rating hurt the film? In some ways, yes. The family-friendly rating does a disservice to the spirited profanity of the original. The film even bleeps its only use of the F-word, something that genuinely irked me. I’m not sure why this film was rated PG-13 in the first place. Was it a demand from the original distributor, Paramount Pictures, or maybe from its final one, Amazon Studios? Or was it a creative decision by Murphy and Co., or a cynical attempt to attract a larger audience?
Coming 2 America also has a more political bent. There’s an increased focus on the depraved gender politics of Zamunda, on its patriarchal traditions. You can still have an R-rated comedy while promoting a more progressive agenda. In fact, I don’t think the film went far enough. Why not satirize the backward traditions more? It all feels a little sanitized.
In fact, even with its bigger emphasis on progressive politics, the film features one particularly overlooked problematic element. The film retcons the first film, by having Akeem sleep with another woman during his first adventure in America. The fact that he was drugged during this particular act is actually more problematic than anything you would see in the original CTA.
So here we have another dud in Murphy’s filmography. Apparently, Beverly Hills Cop 4 is in the works. Afterward, he will probably do another sequel to 48 Hours. He will then follow it up with Trading Places 2: Trading Places Again, which will feature the CGI resurrection of Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy. This will then be followed up by The Golden Child 2: Electric Boogaloo.
And then we will have the glorious return of Pluto Nash with Pluto Nash and the Kingdom of Lost Box-Office Returns. Randy Quaid is reportedly back as the lovable android Bruno. I, for one, cannot wait!
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