by Philip Price
Director: Craig Brewer
Starring: Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall & Shari Headley
Runtime: 1 hour & 50 minutes
Eddie Murphy, at 59, is two years older than James Earl Jones was in 1988 when “Coming to America” was originally released. This may appear to be little more than a heartbreaking factoid to most and have little bearing on where we land regarding “Coming 2 America,” but in many respects it absolutely sets the stage for where the narrative takes us in director Craig Brewer's (“Dolemite Is My Name”) 30-year-later sequel. The script, which went through several iterations, takes audiences through what is a nice balance of both the nostalgia likely related to countless experiences those who were raised on the film associate with it while changing things up enough, both story-wise as well as in terms of modernization, that it's difficult to imagine this movie making anyone angry it was made at all. It was a risky bet to in fact make the film of course, and it will never fulfill certain ideas of what it could or should have been for some and it probably won't come to mean as much to younger generations as the original does to their parents, but it's here. It exists. When someone undoubtedly goes to watch the original film for the 567th time and then needs a chaser to remedy the desire to re-capture that same feeling without going through the exact same experience they now have “Coming 2 America” to show them what happened to these characters decades down the road, to show them how they grew-up, changed, adapted, and discovered who they truly were. The sequel is, if nothing else, a nice, comforting reminder of the simple values the original held near its heart underneath all the broad humor and heavy make-up. As much as it is a passing of the torch sequel (though I feel assured in saying to not expect any more sequels) it is also a sequel that sees how the progress made in the first film - when James Earl Jones' King Joffe Joffer allowed Prince Akeem (Murphy) to venture outside his arranged marriage and marry for love - now raises the bar for Akeem to progress Zamunda that much further under his own rule. It's a film that doesn't feel the need to get into any heavy themes or social or political commentaries, though there are topical jokes here and there, but rather it is a comedy that embraces the progress of not only the culture at large, but of these characters - even addressing in some respects - the stifled progress of those who were once invigorated by as much, but who have since become settled in their role and routine. It would have been easy for “Coming 2 America” to very much stay comfortable in its routine and simply repeated the beats of the original via a younger generation, but the world has changed too much for this to only be about a prince seeking his princess. “Coming 2 America,” if it's about anything, is about that very need for growth and how critical it is to never stop doing so in order to maintain the balance of discovering who one is and who they want to be...even if that journey is as small as deciding whether they should sing Whitney Houston again or move on to some Sister Sledge.
As one may have seen in the trailers, “Coming 2 America” in its most basic form reverses the conceit of the original by having the son Akeem didn't know he had come to Zamunda to the be the fish-out-of-water rather than Akeem himself again venturing to Queens. It's a nice change of pace given the bulk of the original took place in New York with the sequel now allowing for Murphy and the rest of the cast to explore the African nation further. Zamunda, it should be said, also looks fantastic thanks in large part to Ruth E. Carter's costume design and Douglas A. Mowat's set decoration. Upon first being reunited with Prince Akeem he along with his queen, Lisa (Shari Headley), are raising their three daughters in Meeka (KiKi Layne), Omma (Bella Murphy), and Tinashe (Akiley Love). While dealing with the declining health of his father and his impending transition to King, Akeem is also weary of a potential conflict with the neighboring nation of "Nextdooria" (get it? Okay, I promise that's as lame as the jokes get here though) as run by General Izzi (an uproarious Wesley Snipes). Izzi is a warlord of sorts whose authoritarian presence is pressuring Akeem to have either Izzi's son (Rotimi Akinosho) marry Meeka or his daughter, Bopoto (Teyana Taylor) marry a son of Akeem's; the only problem being Akeem has no son to succeed him on the throne. Izzi may also still feel burned by the fact Akeem was supposed to marry his sister (Vanessa Bell Calloway) which would have united their nations and allowed both to prosper, but marrying Lisa caused Izzi's nation to continue to struggle. Meanwhile, Meeka has trained her entire life to be queen, but historically Zamunda has not allowed women to rule. This is where things start to get a little messy in terms of narrative, but the lengths gone to in order to explain how Akeem does in fact have a son back in Queens is all done out of love for the original and respect for the fans of that film even if it does stretch the believability factor quite a bit. That said, this is essentially a fairy tale set in a fictional African kingdom where Cleo McDowell's (John Amos) McDonald's rip-off is thriving, so...best to remember the world we're operating in. As is expected, Akeem and Semmi (Arsenio Hall) make their way back to America to locate Akeem's long-lost son, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), in order to bring him back to Zamunda, train him as a Prince to marry Bopoto, therefore freeing Meeka of the obligation to an arranged marriage while conversely taking away her birthright and saving Zamunda from war. Obviously, this doesn't quite pan out the way Akeem initially hopes, but it ensures enough entertaining hijinks happen along the way that we're reminded not to get too bogged-down in the exposition of it all and simply enjoy all the elements we recognize.
Those elements we recognize certainly play something of a larger role than expected in the film given Brewer and his screenplay (credited to three screenwriters) take every opportunity available to make a call back to the original. Some are rather subtle and genuinely funny as in the blink and you'll miss it moment where Murphy breaks the fourth wall similarly to how he did in the first while others feel so strained to the point, they might have been better off left alone. I won't make mention of any particulars given each and every cameo and/or reference is sure to have its own fans, but rest assured there has been no expense spared in bringing back as many faces from the original as possible (except for Samuel L. Jackson, which is one I thought could have really worked in favor of such gimmicks). Naturally, one of the more gratifying things about this experience is having the opportunity to see both Murphy and Hall play this cavalcade of characters some of which we know and love and others that are new to the world. Garcelle Beauvais returns as a rose bearer, Paul Bates is back as Oha and once again has one of the best and funniest moments in the movie, as is Louie Anderson who - while only in maybe three minutes total - allows for one of the nicer, more genuinely touching callbacks in the film.
As for the new cast members, Leslie Jones portrays Lavelle's mom and the woman Akeem slept with back in '88 prior to meeting Lisa. Jones is pitch-perfect in the role of this loud, larger than life caricature who means no real harm, but is going to make sure she gets hers before anyone else. She is adamant about going to Zamunda with her son when Akeem comes to recruit him and once, she arrives she deflates the anticipated tension with Lisa by immediately embracing both her and some of Zamunda's legendary customs. The introduction of a wrecking ball like Mary into the refined space of Akeem's palace leads to what is low-key one of the nicest subplots in the film as Jones' Mary comes to serve as this reminder to Lisa of where she came from, how much her life and she herself have changed, eventually allowing for Lisa to find herself again through the friendship she and Mary form. Tracy Morgan arrives in top form as well as Mary's brother and Lavelle's Uncle Reem who was there to help raise Lavelle in Akeem's absence. The pairing of Morgan and Murphy, especially in this dynamic where Murphy is playing an actual character rather than only heightening the persona of Eddie Murphy, is pretty inspired and leads to some of the best laughs this sequel garners not based on the anything from the previous film. The script is also smart to pit Reem and Semmi against one another as the chief complaint I would have about this sequel is that there isn't enough for Hall to do, but between the competition that develops between he and Morgan's character in the latter half of the film and all the other characters he and Murphy play said complaint is largely a moot point by the time the credits roll.
Depending on expectations going in then, it would seem “Coming 2 America” was going to either disappoint no matter what or can be seen for what it is which is a harmless sequel to a beloved comedy classic that, while never reaching that status, delivers what it needs to if this world and these characters are something you enjoy. Fowler's Lavelle is extremely endearing and if we lived in a time period like 1988 where movie stars could go on to become megastars in the way Murphy did it would seem the guy would have a real shot at doing so. His character also develops one of the other, more lovely aspects of this film in the relationship that comes to be between Lavelle and his royal hairdresser, Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha), whose arc together ultimately serve the same purpose for Akeem as Mary does for Lisa in reminding the King who he once was before taking on the responsibilities of being a king, a husband, and a father. Speaking to where the film comes from though, it is important to remember when considering “Coming 2 America” that its predecessor came at a time that now feels so early in Murphy's career but was in fact something of the end to his run in the eighties that started with his dominance on “Saturday Night Live,” carried over to his stand-up specials, and into his movies. In 1988, Murphy was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet never mind one of biggest black stars and he used that power in the industry to make a film with an all-black cast and not only make it about affluent black people which I suspect wasn't something people were accustomed to seeing on the silver screen given it remains difficult to get movies made today with all black casts unless they're about slavery, racism, or made by Tyler Perry, but he made a movie that directly addressed class structure through the guise of this humble rom-com. Sure, “Coming to America” doesn't have to be or mean any of that, but when reading more about the context from which the movie was born it's hard to ignore the cultural relevance of it as it also helps in seeing why it's so important that this sequel is about what it's about even if there's no need for it to be anything other than an enjoyable comedy. This summer will mark 33 years since that original movie's debut and while there might have been no better way to enjoy the celebration that is “Coming 2 America” than to see it with a packed crowd of generations that both grew up with the original as well as newcomers to the kingdom of Zamunda it is to the films credit that this new film is just as delightful when viewed from the comfort of your own couch.