Craig Brewer’s Coming 2 America is authentic nostalgia done warmly and well
Coming 2 America may as well be titled Coming 2 Zamunda, since the movie spends most of its time in that fictional African country. Zamunda, of course, is home to Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy), the hero of the hit comedy Coming to America. Rewatching that John Landis film for the first time since 1988, I was struck by how logy and static it was, even for an ’80s comedy. It’s hard to argue that Coming 2 America is a “better” movie, but I liked it more; it’s warmer, its direction (by Craig Brewer, who made Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name) more dynamic, its aesthetic much more fluid and colorful (costume designer Ruth E. Carter can take a bow for that). And it’s actually about something: choosing between the elders we love and the future where the elders may no longer have a place.
Akeem soon becomes king, and is preoccupied with his throne and who will fill it when he’s gone. There’s some truth, of course, in Eddie Murphy playing a prince turned king — it mirrors his real-life arc. Coming to America gave Murphy his first taste of doing accents and multiple characters in the same film, and he reprises them all here, as does Arsenio Hall, playing Akeem’s right-hand man Semmi as well as several other roles. But now that Murphy is a king, to whom does he pass his crown? The amiably antic Jermaine Fowler as Akeem’s illegitimate American son Lavelle. The story is structured so that Lavelle can take over, but Murphy is too powerful a presence for that to happen, and Fowler just isn’t up to it.
Instead, Murphy lets apparent new BFF Wesley Snipes steal a few scenes as General Izzi, who wants Lavelle to marry his meek, boring daughter. Izzi insinuates himself into scenes with a low stroll, echoed by his gun-toting minions behind him; the effect is funky and weird, and Snipes, in these Murphy films, is having more fun than I’ve seen from him in years. In general, Coming 2 America just seems gladder to see all its stars of color than the original film did. Leslie Jones grabs as much of the frame as she can as Lavelle’s THOT mama, accompanied by Tracy Morgan as her brother, grumbling his usual huffy nonsense. Craig Brewer is a white director who clearly feels comfortable in the Black milieu (his other films include Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan). He approaches the sequel as a loving fan of the original; John Landis did little to show any warmth towards his original at all. Landis needed a hit, and Murphy threw it to him like a life preserver. If people think fondly of the 1988 film, it’s due to Murphy and Hall and John Amos and James Earl Jones and all those other wonderful performers filling out a nearly all-Black cast in a major-studio summer comedy. It’s not because Coming to America was particularly good.
Coming 2 America has some of the same problems, plus some new ones. As I said, most of it unfolds not in Queens (though we do check in back there and hang out at the barbershop again) but in Zamunda. If the first film was about questioning authority, the second is about being authority. Age has agreed with Murphy, who has filled out a bit and added some stillness and gravitas to his portfolio (he turns 60 next month, if you’re ready for that). He carries himself like a king, and he gives Akeem a kind of newfound rigidity born of realizing the world isn’t as simple as we’d like it to be. Certain traditions are there because they work; others must change with the times or be discarded. Lavelle in Zamunda is a callback in reverse to the fish-out-of-water comedy of Akeem in Queens, but the rhyming storyline never takes hold, and Akeem himself is largely passive, always trying to convince others to do things or not.
There’s really only so much a get-the-band-back-together nostalgia piece like Coming 2 America can do. Like Bill & Ted Face the Music, it works by being comfort food, and the original Coming to America wasn’t very edgy to begin with, so Coming 2 America isn’t a betrayal of anything other than those who’ll miss the nudity in the R-rated first film. (It was really pretty gratuitous, and as unfeeling a use of women’s bodies as anything in Hustler.) I don’t anticipate ever watching either film again, but Coming 2 America passed the time pleasantly. I don’t understand its disappointed reception, as though Landis’ inert film were an inviolable masterpiece marred by a mere sequel. Coming 2 America shows what this material can be in the hands of a director who’s not just taking it as a gig, who believes in it and loves the cast.