It’s hard to imagine what anyone who hasn’t seen the original Coming to America – which, let’s not forget, was released 33 years ago – would think of his sequel. It’s been more than a few years since Hollywood’s obsession with franchising led the industry to fall back on the dormant legacy of the 80s and 90s titles. But at least the new films like Mad Max: Fury Road and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle are trying to reinvent and redefine their stories and characters for the moment (I try not to say “restart”).
Coming 2 America, which premieres this week on Amazon Prime Video, on the other hand, practically requires an encyclopedic reminder of the original; it exists mainly as a vessel to bring the characters together and retell the classic parts of the first Coming to America (which, by the way, is currently and conveniently available on Amazon Prime Video). This is in some ways the key to the new movie’s quirky charm, even if it also means that it is doomed to live forever in the shadow of its original mega hit.
Recapturing the spirit of the first Coming to America may not be as easy as it seems. In 1988, Eddie Murphy was probably the greatest comedy star on the planet, and many of his most successful stand-ups from that time are so absurdly dated that they could be full-fledged meta-humor pieces now. Coming to America has never been as brutal as, say, Eddie Murphy Raw, of course, but when you watch the opening scene of the new movie, in which a middle-aged Prince Akeem of Zamunda (Murphy) and his wife Lisa (Shari Headley) are woken up by their three daughters wishing them a happy birthday, you remember that in the original, it’s a very lonely Prince Akeem who was woken up by his three beautiful, naked maidservants on the morning of his 21st birthday. It’s not just that things have changed. It’s that the new scene has been shot and edited to look like the original scene, so it only really works if we are aware of the magnitude of the changes. Otherwise, we might wonder why the new film lingers so awkwardly on each girl politely saying “Hello, mother and father” to her parents.
A nightly newsletter for the best of New York City
SIGN UP FOR A GREAT HISTORY
The story of the suite is also directly related to the trip that Prince Akeem and his close friend and advisor Semmi (Arsenio Hall) made to the United States many years ago. Akeem needs a male heir to the throne, otherwise his kingdom is in danger of falling into the hands of General Izzi (a formidable Wesley Snipes), the warlord of neighboring Nextdoria who struts, struts and wears the kilt, and who spends his free time reading storybooks to his army of child soldiers. (Izzi’s sister was engaged to Akeem in Coming to America, and she still barks like a dog – another hilarious interlude that literally makes no sense to anyone who hasn’t seen the first movie recently). Akeem, who has only daughters, discovers that he actually has a son, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), whom he fathered out of wedlock in New York City while having a semi-foolish, semi-consensual (and most likely non-consensual) affair with the party girl Mary (Leslie Jones). So naturally, he and Semmi returned to New York to find the young man and bring him back to Zamunda to take his place as the first in the line to the throne.
In other words, Coming 2 America is a nostalgic journey both figuratively and literally. Akeem and Semmi find themselves in the same part of Queens as before, which is of course incredibly gentrified – except for the still existing and declining My-T-Sharp Hair Salon, which is still populated by the trio of politically incorrect and noisy hairdressers Mr. Clarence (also Murphy), Morris (also Hall) and Sweets (Clint Smith, Murphy’s longtime collaborator), as well as their lifelong client Saul (also Murphy). You would think that Murphy, Hall and their team would try to tiptoe through a potentially problematic minefield of humour here, but no, they happily walk all the mines. The barber shop greets Akeem and Semmi with a warm “Hey, it’s Kunta Kinte and Ebola!” and continues with “Famine and Blood Diamond!” and “Nelson Mandela and Winnie!”. Then a random customer says, “Those hungry babies with flies on their faces” and everyone is suddenly in shock. “Si Si
None of this means that Coming 2 America is Edgelord’s sordid fantasy with politically unacceptable humor. In truth, it is too quiet and shaggy for that, more a show than a movie. Akeem was already a straight man in the first film – Murphy saved his best gags for the other characters he played – but here he walks away completely, letting his reaction plans raise the little that is necessary. Much of the film is devoted to musical numbers, some of them by veterans like Salt-N-Pepa, Gladys Knight and En Vogue. As for the story, we see Lavelle and his mother Mary crossing the royal circles of Zamunda, where they make one misstep after another and Lavelle finds himself in a romantic dilemma similar to that of Akeem in the original: He is supposed to marry Izzi’s daughter (Teyana Taylor) for the good of the kingdom, but instead he falls in love with the royal barber (South African star Nomzamo Mbatha). Once again, it doesn’t feel like the filmmakers have written a new script, just… rewritten the old one.
The best new features of Coming 2 America are also, curiously, the worst. Snipes’ flamboyant warlord steals the spotlight (just as his authoritarian director character stole Dolemite), but the series doesn’t steal it back. Izzi has almost nothing to do except show up, make a few threats, and then disappear. Sure, he does all this fabulously, but his presence seems truncated : In fact, the script seems to give him a bigger and meaner role. A later attempt to give him more is immediately nipped in the bud, as if the production realizes that it doesn’t really have the time or money for a new sideline. Likewise, Tracy Morgan, who plays Lavelle’s con artist uncle, makes a few jokes about it and may conduct one last ceremony, but that’s it. Until you realize that in the world of Coming 2 America, that’s pretty much all they ask.