It’s hard to believe it has been 33 years since Eddie Murphy’s hysterical culture clash comedy “Coming to America” was released, becoming one of the biggest box office hits of 1988. It’s even harder to believe that after 33 years we actually have a sequel that brings back Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall along with the colorful and eclectic band of side characters who were essential to the original film’s success.
“Coming 2 America” (as it’s cleverly titled) taps into some of the same charm and comic energy that earned its predecessor such a loyal following. But this time around things feel much more studio packaged. Also, it’s not nearly as daring or anarchic especially in the movie’s second half where director Craig Brewer and the trio of screenwriters are content to play it safe. The laughs more-or-less dry up and the film slides into cruise control, staying that way for the remainder of its running time.
The story begins in bright sunny Zamunda on the morning of Prince Akeem (Murphy) and Princess Lisa’s (Shari Headley) 30th wedding anniversary. Much is still the same in the African monarchy with the Akeem and his family still living the palace life in all of its absurd royal excess. What has changed are the couple’s three daughters and the spark they bring to the palace. Their oldest is Princess Meeka (Kiki Layne), a lover of Zamunda who has worked and trained her entire life to be a worthy heir to her father’s throne. The problem is Zamunda is still ruled under an archaic stale patriarchy that states the throne can only be occupied by a male. Akeem had sworn to overturn such a dated tradition but instead of ushering in a new Zamunda he has become more like his ailing father King Jaffe (James Earl Jones).
Akeem’s lack of a male heir doesn’t escape the notice of General Izzi (a wonderfully campy Wesley Snipes), military leader of Nextdooria (that’s Next-Door-ia). He demands that Meeka marry his air-headed son in order for there to be peace between their two nations. Everything about Snipes is heightened and preposterous (in a really funny way) from his wacky speech tone to his hilariously pompous entrances. General Izzi is as close as we get to an antagonist, but it’s mainly a chance for Snipes to ham it up which I kinda loved.
Through circumstances I won’t spoil Akeem learns that he has an illegitimate son named Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) in Queens, New York. Fans of the first movie had to be scratching their heads after this plotline was revealed in the trailer. After all, the reason Akeem went to America in the first movie was to find a wife who would love him for who he was. He had no interest in “sowing his royal oats“. This story maneuvers around that in a ludicrous but weirdly fitting way. So Akeem and his best friend/royal troublemaker Semmi (Arsenio Hall) head back to America to find his son and bring him back to Zamunda. Akeem does so not to connect with his true first-born and be a father to him. But so that he will finally have a not-so-rightful male heir to his throne.
“Coming 2 America” is at its best during its first 30 minutes or so where it feels very much in tune with the first movie. Whether it’s John Amos returning as Lisa’s father Cleo who has opened up a McDowell’s burger joint in Zamunda while still denying he stole his inspiration from McDonald’s. Or back in Queens where Akeem and Semmi revisit the savagely politically-incorrect Clarence and his barbershop buddies. And of course the movie features Murphy and Hall back in makeup and costumes reprising their numerous supporting roles including the aforementioned Clarence, the ever-awful soul singer Randy Watson, the womanizing Reverend Brown, and a new character Baba, a Zamundan witch doctor. This is where the movie shines.
The second half softens up considerably, tossing aside most things risqué or suggestive enabling the film￼ to secure that PG-13 rating. It becomes this appealing but at times bland family comedy-lite with Lavelle and his Queens momma (Leslie Jones) clashing with the royal lifestyle while Akeem slowly wakes up to the silliness of a male-dominated society. As for Hall, he’s mostly left on the sidelines, popping up for a line of dialogue or a quick gag then *poof* he’s gone again. Aside from that there’s nothing glaringly bad about the back half. It just feels plain and ordinary. With the exception of its setting and a few fun nostalgic nods, there’s nothing about the last 45 minutes that will stick with you past the closing credits.
Looking back, it was the irreverence and satirical bite that made the ’88 film so funny and memorable. That movie wasn’t afraid to be silly or edgy and it never took itself seriously. It was infinitely quotable and there is a good reason why some of its scenes have over 3 million views on YouTube. The sequel opens with the same infectious cheeky vibe before settling in as a tame and rather conventional comedy. It ends up being an entertaining enough nostalgia trip that revisits some great comic characters from the past. Even if they aren’t as roundly funny as before, simply seeing them 30 years later is a joy in itself. “Coming 2 America” premieres tomorrow (March 5th) on Amazon Prime.
VERDICT – 3 STARS