This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by Scott Z. Walkinshaw.
Coming 2 America (2021)
Director: Craig Brewer
Screenwriter: Kenya Barris, Barry W. Blaustein, David Sheffield
Starring: Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Wesley Snipes, Jermaine Fowler, Shari Headley, KiKi Layne, Leslie Jones, Tracy Morgan, James Earl Jones
Coming to America (1988) was truly something fresh – a John Landis comedy that lovingly poked fun at New York City, spearheaded by the perfect pairing of Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall. The film was a box-office hit and, Louie Anderson aside, featured an all-black cast, making it a landmark in African American on-screen representation. It was the kind of lightning in a bottle that only the 80s seemed to produce. 33 years later, Coming 2 America attempts to replicate that same lightning in a bottle, but unfortunately for fans of the original it struggles to barely produce a spark.
Catching up with Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) and his best aide-turned-friend Semmi (Arsenio Hall), we see that times have changed somewhat in their African nation of Zamunda since Akeem’s return from the US. The respectful air of the land has become louder and more modern, the ceremonial tribal dancing has given way to musical guest-star performances and the painted backdrops of the first film have now become computer-generated backdrops instead. Akeem and his queen Lisa (Shari Headley) have produced three strong daughters, with their eldest Meeka (KiKi Layne, The Old Guard), eager to take up the throne after her father. However, Zamundan tradition states that only a man may rule the nation, and on his death bed, King Jaffe (James Earl Jones) drops the bombshell that Akeem has a long-lost son back in New York. With Semmi in tow, Akeem journeys back to where it all began to retrieve the surprise heir to the Zamundan throne and end a potential war with General Izzi (Wesley Snipes) and his neighbouring nation of Nextdoria.
The most apparent problem with Coming 2 America is that it constantly contradicts itself. In fact, the entire film is one big contradiction. We know that Akeem did not go to America to “sow his royal oats” as the entire story revolved around finding his true love, so where exactly did this son come from? The answer to this comes in the form of a retcon flashback in which Mary (Leslie Jones) drugs and rapes Akeem. This point is played for laughs and largely shrugged off by the film in order to proceed with the plot, and even when it is brought up again, it’s to reprimand Akeem for his infidelity. In 2021, it’s a hurdle that the film simply cannot get over, especially when it tries so hard to act like it’s on the right side of gender politics.
Meeka is repeatedly said and shown to be more than capable of handling the position as ruler of the nation, but she is sidelined along with her mother to make way for “bastard son” Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) and his fish out of water antics. Upon Lavelle’s introduction to the story, we see a reversal of the original dynamic that made the first film so much fun to watch, with the young man from Queens adjusting to Zamundan life. Yet here it merely feels stretched out and tiresome, largely because Fowler lacks the comic spirit and likability that made Murphy the anchor of not just the 1988 film but the rest of his filmography. Zamunda is also no NYC, which goes without saying – that is, of course, the point. The difference comes in how each setting is used in their respective films, and while Coming to America froze the very essence of New York in time, Zamunda is characterised by pop culture and situational contrivances. Its identity rests on these bombastic updates, shovelled on top of the ground built in the first film.
Identity becomes a strong concern with Coming 2 America as it struggles to carve its own space in the comedy pantheon, spending most of its time pulling in as many references and characters as it can fit into its 109-minute runtime. Director Craig Brewer (who helmed Murphy’s enjoyable 2019 comeback Dolemite is My Name) and original writers Barry W. Blaustein & David Sheffield (joined by ‘Black-ish’ creator Kenya Barris) relish in revisiting old favourites such as the old boys from the My-T-Sharp barbershop or Jackson Heights’ own Randy Watson (ft. Sexual Chocolate!), but while some of these detours work better than others – entirely due to Murphy and Hall’s comic energy which feels almost uncomfortably contained within this PG-13 rating – the call-backs never cease. More than any other late-sequel, Coming 2 America has a leave-no-stone mentality that sees everything from Akeem’s original barking fiancé to his elephant Babar reappear. Yet, in amongst these nudging references for the fans, footage from the first film appears to catch both Lavelle and young audiences up on the story thus far, leaving you wondering who this was actually made for.
If this was planned to be Eddie Murphy’s big return to mainstream comedy, sadly this isn’t the film to do it. In a plot so stuffed with tangents, even Akeem and Semmi get lost in the shuffle, never really getting their time to shine. There are a handful of scenes that have a little bit of that old Murphy magic in them – a heartfelt talk in the Zamundan branch of McDowell’s between Akeem and father-in-law Cleo (Paul Amos) gives the film it’s only real emotional prod – but unfortunately Coming 2 America is one more sequel that leaves you wishing you had watched its predecessor instead.
Written by Scott Z. Walkinshaw
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