As two characters in COMING 2 AMERICA discuss their love for movies, they both bemoan sequels that no one asked for, especially ones that are done too late. This meta moment might be the most knowing one in the entire movie as most of the rest of this sequel to 1988’s Eddie Murphy comedy COMING TO AMERICA seems adrift with an unfocused script, tracing paper-thin characterizations, and cringe-worthy jokes that seem wholly dated in 2021. 33 years was a long time to wait for such a follow-up, debuting on Amazon Prime today, and few of its tropes have aged well.
It’s especially disappointing considering that many of the talent involved here did the superb DOLEMITE IS MY NAME just two years ago. That film, based on the true story of Rudy Ray Moore’s venture into Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, was a comeback film for Murphy and costar Wesley Snipes, showcased a flair for farce from the heretofore serious-minded direction of Craig Brewer, and contained exceptional period costumes from the sublime Ruth E. Carter. But all those talents struggle to get their bearings in this new, excessively garish comedy.
The original COMING TO AMERICA was rated R and contained considerable raunch. That was to be expected in the 1980s as comedies were becoming bluer and bluer and Murphy was far from a squeaky clean standup or actor. Still, there was a wholesomeness to a lot of the film, telling the story of an earnest and naïve African prince from Zamunda trying to make it on his own in a foreign nation. Murphy surprised everyone being pitch-perfect playing such sweetness.
Here, there is too little earnestness, too much raunch, and not nearly enough Murphy as Prince Akeem. Throughout most of the film, he seems to be a supporting character, struggling for screen time amidst too many players squeezed into the mix and the main story concerning the attempt of his bastard son Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler) to earn his birthright. The fact that most of the comedy is handed to Fowler as Lavelle struggles to pass the tests necessary for him to claim his birthright is a terrible choice when one of the greatest comedians of all time is the headliner.
Fowler tries, but he’s, well, no Eddie Murphy. He’s not even Arsenio Hall, whose main supporting character Semmi from the first film also gets precious little screen time this go-round. Lisa (Shari Headley), Akeem’s esteemed love interest from the first film, has a few moments in the sequel, but she too is given short shrift by the overstuffed script. Instead, Lavelle’s broadly-caricatured family members (Leslie Jones and Tracy Morgan) get a lion’s share of attention, as do the two bland ingenues played by Nomzamo Mbatha and Kiki Layne.
Layne plays Akeem’s accomplished daughter Meeka, and Mbatha is the royal palace’s hairdresser Mirembe, but neither part is written particularly well, and the script could’ve easily combined them into one character. The narrative attempts to give Meeka a female empowerment storyline as she fights to overcome the sexist kingdom demanding that Akeem’s heir be male, but it doesn’t really land. It’s hard to get across such an idea when most of the film would rather focus on sexual innuendos and cleavage-popping costumes.
Additionally, the film botches the impact of Snipes’ rival leader out to vanquish Akeem. Snipes has the talent to render both villains (DEMOLITION MAN) and comic foils (DOLEMITE IS MY NAME), but his performance here is neither scary nor funny, just hammy. His character wears out his welcome almost immediately and the story forgets about him for most of the middle altogether. Hard to be the antagonist when you barely show up.
The film wastes a lot of time reminding us of all the schtick from the first film, whether it’s meaningful to the story here or not. There are moments of sublime silliness seeing Murphy and Hall play their old barbershop farts again, but most of such scenes feel gratuitous. In the original movie, these streetwise veterans provided a contrast to the naivete of Akeem’s fish out of water. Here, they’re mostly just a distracting sideshow taking away from more crucial scenes.
There need to be real stakes and characters that earn our investment this go-round, but instead, most of the comedy feels arbitrary, like it’s all brainstorming, rather than story building. Morgan Freeman and James Earl Jones are trotted out for brief appearances and forced to do dirty material way beneath them. And cameos from En Vogue and Gladys Knight feel like little more than a reach back for nostalgia.
And for all the supposed harkening back to the first film, it’s shocking how little Murphy and Headley are given to do together here. It doesn’t help that their scenes come preoccupied with the unsavory plot points about Akeem siring a son out of wedlock. And wasn’t Akeem looking for pure love in the first film? How does a one-night stand help the memory of that?
Murphy can still do a double-take better than most any actor working today, but one wishes he had done a double-take on this script. In the original COMING TO AMERICA, he proved himself to be equally adept at playing heartfelt and hilarious. In DOLEMITE IS MY NAME, he proved that he could find true pathos within a clownish character. In COMING 2 AMERICA, he’s backslid into a project that feels wholly unnecessary. Here’s hoping his next one restores his purpose and majesty.