Eddie Murphy is the straight man, and that’s the least of its problems
As a relic of 1980s comedy, Coming to America holds up better than most. It’s not perfect, as Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy)’s quest for a marriage of equals is undermined by a liberal sprinkling of sexism and a truly terrible ending. Mostly, though, it is still damn funny. And so it’s with a heavy heart that I report that the sequel, Coming 2 America, is deeply, embarrassingly bad. This despite re-teaming Murphy with director Craig Brewer, who together made the very good 2019 comedy Dolemite Is My Name.
So, what happened? Coming 2 America seems to fundamentally misunderstand what made the original so funny, which was placing Murphy in the center of a foreign-visitor trope, a prince trying to find a queen in Queens. Here, they flip the plot and bring the film’s newcomers (Jermaine Fowler, Leslie Jones, and Tracy Morgan) to the fictional African country, Zamunda, and make Murphy, essentially, the straight man. Never make Murphy the straight man! The only possible way this could have worked is if Fowler was a comic talent on the level of a young Murphy. He’s likable, but he’s certainly not that.
Maybe this was always a no-win proposition. Can you really have a post-Wakanda Zamunda? Not without a radical overhaul, which definitely did not happen (and while we’re thinking about this, why didn’t a Black director get the gig?). In the light of 2021, Zamunda’s culture seems like some Saudi Arabia-level bullshit: Women can’t own businesses. They’re still used as rose-petal sprinklers and royal bathers. Akeem’s long-ago-spurned fiancee is still barking like a dog (!). And Akeem and Lisa (Shari Headley)’s three daughters can’t legally be heirs to the throne. Sure, some of this is being set up to be dismantled before the credits roll–barely-but still. Yuck.
COMING 2 AMERICA ★(1/5 stars)
Directed by: Craig Brewer
Written by: Barry W. Blaustein, Kenya Barris, David Sheffield
Starring: Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Shari Headley, Wesley Snipes
Running time: 140 min
Fortunately for the Zamundan patriarchy, Akeem finds out he has a son (Fowler) in America, spawned during one drugged night during his Queens sojourn. He faintly remembers Jones’ character as a rapey wild boar. Which is hard for me to imagine Jones being okay with, but maybe everyone in the cast just wanted to be a part of this thing, and the less questions asked the better. See also: Morgan Freeman, Trevor Noah, Luenell, and Murphy’s Dolemite co-star Wesley Snipes, who plays a rival ruler from the next door kingdom of…Nextdoria. That’s the level of screenwriting we’re working with. Hallmark Christmas movies have more nuance.
Snipes, thankfully, camps it up as General Izzi, who wants his daughter to marry Akeem’s son, Lavelle. This gives the film a chance to replay the arranged-marriage bit from the first movie. Lavelle asks her about her personality, and she answers that she likes whatever he likes. It was one of the least funny parts of the original, and it’s worse now, and nobody bothered to tweak it at all.
Alas, there are no appearances from Eriq la Salle’s villainous, moist-haired Darryl, or Allison Dean’s excitable Patrice. If there was a hat tip to Soul Glo, I missed it. Arsenio Hall reprises his sidekick character, Semmi, but he doesn’t have much to do and looks, frankly, tired and unenthused. Ditto John Amos as Cleo, owner of the McDowell’s franchise, which has set up a palace-adjacent locale. At least we get a brief return to the barbershop in Queens, where Murphy and Hall play most of the characters. Still impressive and funny, although I contend you could pull it off without the cliched potshots at #MeToo.
Brewer does know his way around a big musical number. (Unpopular opinion: His Footloose remake is kind of great.) We get a rousing rendition of Prince’s “Gett Off,” and musical performances from En Vogue and Salt-N-Pepa and Gladys Knight. Murphy’s alter ego Randy Watson, a hilariously terrible R&B singer, makes a comeback with his band Sexual Chocolate. I don’t know if these constitute enough highlights to make this worth two hours of your time. The cast seems to be having a pretty great time, though, so maybe vicarious enjoyment will suffice.
I liked what Questlove had to say in Rolling Stone’s tribute to Soul Glo, one of the best running gags from the original: “[Soul Glo and Coming to America] are truly moments in which black people got to experience a cross between Afrocentricity and black joy and things that we needed to see. I didn’t realize how aspirational it was, because it seemed like a fantasy.” If you can find moments that sustain the fantasy here, great! But since the original is also available on Prime – free with your subscription, no less- why not just go straight to the source?