Taking c. $300 million off a $36 million budget, it is perhaps most surprising that 1988’s Coming to America has taken this long to receive the sequel treatment (not counting the attempt to spin it off to television, of course).
With John Landis (best known for An America Werewolf in London, Trading Places, and The Blues Brothers) directing a story conceived by Eddie Murphy, the original was smart, funny and full of heart, as it told the story of the crown prince of a small African state fighting for the right to choose his own bride – to find a woman with whom he connected on every level – and then going to America, with his servant Semmi (Arsenio Hall) to seek her out in – not unusually for 80s comedies – a fish out of water story.
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As we left that story, Akeem (Murphy) had inspired his mother (the late Madge Sinclair) to convince the King (James Earl Jones) to change the long-standing rules of the country and allow the crown prince to marry the woman of his choice. Akeem had married a modern, intelligent American businesswoman (vital as she is to her father’s McDonald’s ‘homage’ of a restaurant). On his journey he had decided he wanted to take care of his own personal care and hygiene, and not to have his every step preceded by rose-bearers. The story was complete, leaving us with a film that has stood the test of time, despite the many changes in societal attitudes in the intervening decades.
As we pick up with Akeem and his wife Lisa (a totally wasted Shari Headley), we see how little has changed. Bathing is still a – well – group effort, rose bearers lead the way for the members of the royal household, Semmi is still by Akeem’s side – though with Hall having a much reduced role – and, most disappointingly, Zamundan society has not evolved one bit, as women are not allowed to run businesses. Any and all progress from the first film has been overwritten. Not necessarily a problem if the resulting work is funny…
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With Akeem and Lisa having three daughters, we are reminded by the dying King Jaffe Joffer that only a male heir can ascend to the throne, and the first of two deeply depressing plot developments are in place. The second is that in a drugged-up haze (facilitated by Semmi without his master’s knowledge) during the nights spent in clubs (with copious flashbacks to scenes in the first film) Akeem had a one-night stand with Mary Junson (an extremely loud and unfunny Leslie Jones), in which he may have fathered a son. We say may, as the film does nothing with the idea of any kind of proof, and even Mary says he ‘may be’ the father.
So having seen freshly created scenes of that night, complete with a hideously de-aged Murphy (he looks like someone else’s face has melted off onto his), Akeem is heading back to America, or, rather stepping through a time portal into the first film, as he arrives in Queens to the exact same barber’s shop, featuring the exact same characters, looking around the same age, having the same conversations about boxing (substituting Floyd Mayweather in for Joe Louis). To fit in – just as in the first film – Murphy’s character throws on baseball caps and I love NY-style merchandise. At the point it is clear that this film has nothing to offer except to remind us of the superior original. The characters have been frozen in amber to protect this aim, and the jokes are simply not funny.
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Having found his son, it is straight back to Zamunda (the USA hardly features) along with the boy’s mother, where Lavelle (the son’s name – played by Jermaine Fowler) must learn the ways of being the crown prince – Earl’s king having passed away during the most gratuitous ‘look how many celebrities are here’ living funeral event in the film’s first act. From here we have a wildly overacting Wesley Snipes as General Izzi (featured in the first film, and the brother of the women Akeem asked to bark like a dog. As it turns out she still is 30 years on – isn’t it hilarious how her life has been ruined!), a shouting Tracy Morgan, and a half-baked re-tread of the love story from the first film, as Lavelle falls in love with someone not of the family’s choosing – sound familiar?
Coming 2 America was always onto a bit of a loser, and the story concept was always likely to undermine the events of the first film. This is bad enough: worse is that it is simply not funny. As with Ocean’s Twelve, it feels like money was available to make a sequel to a popular film, and the cast took it as an opportunity to hang out and have a good time. As a film standing on its own two feet, it is lazy, poorly paced, and not at all amusing – barring a couple of smiles that save it from further ignominy. As a sequel to one of the great comedy films of the 80s (and, possibly, Murphy’s last great film), it is deeply disrespectful, and something that it would be worth paying money to un-see. Dolemite is my Name wasn’t just a dream, was it?
Coming 2 America is out now on Amazon Prime Video.