In 1983 director John Landis and star Eddie Murphy stamped all over racial and cultural sensitivities with their crass depiction of African culture. Fortunately this was only a small part of the movie and Trading Places, while dated in this and other areas, does still have a lot of charm. Nonetheless with this in mind I approached their 1988 movie Coming to America with some trepidation. I’d seen it before of course but having rewatched Trading Places this Christmas and only really picked up on the problems there for the first time I was worried that coming back to their comedy about an African prince who goes to New York to find love, I might find it is not as easy a watch as I had remembered.
As it turns out Coming to America holds up really well. There are more naked breasts than you’d see if the movie were made now and none of the women have any great agency but it isn’t racist. I mean, the representation of the second largest continent is about as authentic as it is in The Lion King but it isn’t offensive (as much as I can make a call on that as a Caucasian English bloke). Interestingly though, there is another thing I discovered that Coming to America isn’t; something that I had indeed hadn’t thought was the case based on my first viewing of the film about thirty years ago. It turns out Coming to America isn’t very funny. (Which, to be fair, is also something my Britishness and my whiteness may mean I am not in the best position to judge).
I feel like I am being really harsh. Coming to America is a good film, I certainly enjoyed it, but I would describe it as gently amusing at best. There aren’t really any big chuckles in it. I do recall that the royal penis joke had me in stitches when I was a teenager but not this time. Certainly when you compare it to Landis’ best films; The Blues Brothers, American Werewolf in London, Spies Like Us, Three Amigos!, or Eddie Murphy’s greatest performances in Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hours, The Nutty Professor, Dreamgirls, Shrek and last year’s Dolemite is My Name it does feel a little muted.
So it is that coming to the belated sequel Coming 2 America, I found that it follows in the same vein. It still manages to avoid any cultural insensitivities, largely because it demonstrably isn’t really trying to represent any Africa that exists in the real world (the comparisons to The Lion King are written into the script this time) and the jokes still raise a smile but not a laugh.
Much of the humour in Coming 2 America relies on knowledge and affection for the first film. If you are not very familiar with Coming to America I strongly advise revisiting it before coming to Coming 2 America. Like so much of US blockbuster cinema right now, it assumes you know the previous movies. (I mean movies plural in this case too as, like it’s predecessor, Coming 2 America follows on from the aforementioned Trading Places.) There are some nice set pieces that are all the film’s own, most notably King Jaffe Joffer’s funeral, but mostly they are just revisiting old gags. This said, if you do love Coming to America then you will lap all of this up. In fact I would commend rather than criticise Coming 2 America for its heavy links to what came before as it is the strongest card in its hand.
The plot this time has Eddie Murphy’s Akeem returning to Queens when he discovers he has an illegitimate son. He then takes said illegitimate son Lavelle back to Zamunda where illegitimacy is actually still a thing. There is a little bit of Princess Diaries style anguish as Lavelle tries to come to term with his new royal status but this, like Akeem’s daughters feelings about being supplanted and the neighbouring leader’s invasion plans, it all comes to very little. Narrative definitely takes second place to nostalgia here. (Note: the nation that borders Zamunda is called Nextdoria which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the script.)
Most of the original actors return and interestingly Arsenio Hall’s Semmi feels the most underserved. He was such a key part of the first film but they don’t seem to know what to do with him here and he feels a little sidelined. Almost everyone else from Queen Lisa to the guys from the barber shop get their due though and time has been kind to all of them, particularly the guys in the barber shop who wouldn’t you know look exactly the same. Soul singer Randy Watson hasn’t aged as much as you’d have expected either. Of the new cast Wesley Snipes’ General Izzi leaves the biggest impression but everyone fits in well. In my review of The Old Guard I wrote of how the brilliance KiKi Layne showed in If Beale Street Could Talk still shone through in her performance there but sadly she doesn’t get the chance to shine here as the eldest princess. I really hope she gets another decent gig soon because consigning her to supporting parts in actions and comedies would be a travesty.
I’m not sure that Coming 2 America is a film that needed to be made but as a double bill with Coming to America it really works. If you need to double bill it do double bill it though. If you don’t because you know and love the original film well then this might just be your movie of the year.
The Ripley Factor:
Representation was one of the best things about Coming to America as it featured an almost entirely black cast. Its gender politics were not quite so good though. Coming 2 America seems to want to address this as as well as all of the women getting to keep their tops on, it has a strong message about sex equality with an examination of an outdated chauvinist patriarchal society and the importance of women’s right to rule. Like everything in the film though it is a little broad and too obvious. Nope, Mulan is still Eddie Murphy’s most feminist film.