2 Little 2 Late: A Review of Coming 2 America
Death, taxes, and resurrected nostalgic properties in Hollywood (regardless of profit). Three things that can always be counted on in life, no matter what. The film in question today even takes an opportunity to clown on this notion halfway through.
It’s been thirty-three years since Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) and Semmi (Arsenio Hall) ran away from the kingdom of Zamunda to Queens, New York to steal the hearts of American audiences in the original comedy classic, Coming To America. Considering the success of the film, it is kind of astounding that it took this long for a sequel to happen. There was an attempted television series, but still, a second Coming To America was always inevitable, even if it took three decades to get there, I suppose.
The career of Eddie Murphy has gone through a wild evolution since that premiere date. He’s gone through his highs (The Nutty Professor and its sequel), lows (Norbit, Meet Dave), the skyrocketing high of voicing Donkey in the immortal, unyielding Shrek franchise, to a recent, quieter part of his career with loftier goals of awards in mind with Dreamgirls and the practically forgotten Mr. Church.
Even if Dolemite Is My Name was largely and unjustly ignored by awards voters, the film did reignite the cultural thirst for Eddie Murphy, returning him to the spotlight, giving him the opportunity to go back to his comedy roots and host what is probably one of the funniest Saturday Night Live episodes in recent years. Murphy’s career seems to be in a rebound, heavily emphasizing a return to comedy, so if there was ever going to be a Coming To America sequel, now is the time, right?
I guess not. There’s nothing offensively bad about Coming 2 America. If you’re a fan of the original, it does not play like a slap in the face at all. It hits plenty of nostalgia soft spots without feeling cheap, and the entire cast feels game to return or to become a new addition to the comedy film’s legacy. But during its entire running time, it's impossible to shake the feeling that everyone involved had an attitude of “Well, we’ve got to make this sequel, so let’s just get it over with.”
When writing a sequel to a movie like Coming To America, one really needs to throw out any sense of story logic. The original film is a clean, tight, script, with everything wrapped up neatly by the time credits roll. In order to create a new drama for Prince Akeem, Murphy and his new screenwriting crew (Which includes Black-ish creator, Kenya Barris) either needed to fabricate an entirely new plot or return to old roots. They went with the easier option and recreated the dramatic struggles of the first film with Akeem now under pressure to leave the throne of Zamunda to a male heir instead of his oldest daughter. When he’s told he has an illegitimate son back in Queens (Jermaine Fowler), he sweeps him and his mother and uncle (Leslie Jones and Tracy Morgan) back to Zamunda to try and officially bring them into the family before rival Monarch, General Izzi (Wesley Snipes) loses his patience and his temper. It’s odd that they went with the title Coming 2 America when maybe about fifteen minutes of the two-hour runtime is dedicated to New York City.
Again, everyone in this film feels like they’re giving everything they’ve got, nothing feels forced. It doesn’t seem like a paycheck was dangled along like a carrot on a string for anyone involved. The particular strength of the movie lies in the cast. The obvious returning favorites of Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Shari Headley, and James Earl Jones are joined by new comedy powerhouses like Morgan, Jones, Fowler, and rising stars like Kiki Layne and Teyana Taylor. The problem doesn’t lie in any of their performances, but in the sad fact that there’s really nothing for them to do. The sleepy, uninspired story gives almost nothing to their characters, and Jermaine Fowler is essentially retreading all the water that was covered by Murphy in the original film.
Coming 2 America was directed by Dolemite Is My Name’s Craig Brewer, who seems to be a new favorite collaborator of Murphy’s. Murphy and John Landis butted heads on the production of the original film and considering the decline of Landis’ career thanks to his own hubris and the spotlight thrust upon his much less-talented but much-louder son, Max, it’s not surprising Landis wasn’t asked to return. While Murphy is the obvious auteur of Coming To America (he’s even said that he was originally going to direct the film himself) Landis’ skills at directing cinematic comedy can’t be denied and Brewer had shoes that were almost impossible to film. Craig Brewer is a talented director, but this film’s direction feels utilitarian, like a director for hire. It’s curious why Murphy didn’t seize the chance to direct the sequel as well, or even had more of a hand in the writing process. That certainly would have brought more life to the production.
Instead, what we’re given is a ho-hum retread into familiar territory and a lovely reminder of everything we adored about the original film. It certainly won’t make you angry, but it may inspire you to stop the movie halfway through and just put the 1988 classic back on instead. Murphy’s listed upcoming credits look like a continuation of nostalgia porn with Beverly Hills Cop 4 and Triplets on the horizon. While I wish him and those projects well, I really hope the awards season failure of Dolemite doesn’t discourage Murphy from putting all his time and effort into another passion project that all his blood, sweat, and tears go into. While he may have felt like he had to make Coming 2 America, he really didn’t have to, but at least he gave it some effort instead of nothing at all.