“It is also a tradition that times must, and always do, change.”
Prince Akeem Joffer (Eddie Murphy) utters those words near the start of 1988’s Coming to America, a foreshadowing rejoinder to his kingly father, Jaffe (James Earl Jones), on how he will circumvent Jaffe’s insistence on arranged marriage as has been the Joffer family way in the (fictitious) African nation of Zamunda. Akeem’s gentlemanly perseverance to woo and eventually wed Lisa (Shari Headley), a woman he meets halfway around the world in Queens, pays off Akeem’s pursuit of the progressiveness he believed possible in the film, one of Murphy’s unexpectedly warmer works and among his more profanely raucous. Murphy flung “fuck” around with aplomb back then, but never to as much fluent or forceful comedic effect.
Back then, after Akeem stepped out in front of a car to solicit its driver, the response from beefy Jake Steinfeld was a lively “You dumb fuck!” Coming 2 America repeats that car-hailing bit — one of at least two dozen punchlines congealing into mush like a sack of McDowell’s Big Micks (not Big Macs) under a dying heat lamp. (It feels like co-writers Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield have credit here solely for cribbing so much comedy they already did 33 years ago, right down to a revived Trading Places in-joke with an all-new lily-white cameo appearance.) This time, Akeem’s jaunt into traffic is met with … a mewling, strait-laced spiel about Lyft delivered by the mustached guy trapped in Wanda’s Westview fantasy on WandaVision. Wondering how much is lost to filtered language here? A closing-credits outtake offers a bleeped, filthily flubbed line delivered in another major cameo appearance, and you laugh harder at that than the finished version.
Matching neither the sublime joke-machine efficiency nor the seamlessly sweet romance of its predecessor, Coming 2 America is ultimately just another many-years-later sequel for which adjusted expectations are in order. It is a long way off from Bill & Ted Face the Music, not quite Dumb & Dumber To, and mercifully bears little resemblance to the second Zoolander or Zombieland.
So what’s happened in the last 30 years? Zamunda has enjoyed unrivaled prosperity under Jaffe’s continued rule while its neighboring nation, Nexdoria, wallows in unbearable poverty. Akeem and Lisa have raised three daughters, and the eldest, Meeka (KiKi Layne of The Old Guard and If Beale Street Could Talk), is ready to flip the script on Zamunda’s patriarchal stranglehold. But as Jaffe’s health fails, Akeem’s inability to produce a male heir causes concern for the vigor he’d bring to Zamunda’s throne. Nexdoria has someone quite eager to stage a coup in General Izzi (Wesley Snipes), the angry brother of the African princess whom Akeem jilted at the altar years earlier (who still barks like a dog per Akeem’s joking command).
It’s then that Akeem learns he does have a son … from a pre-Lisa tryst with a woman from Queens named Mary Junson (Leslie Jones). Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler) is a thirtysomething who’s adept at hustling tickets but adrift when it comes to his life’s true purpose. When Akeem and his aide, Semmi (Arsenio Hall), come calling with the news of his royal lineage, Lavelle, Mary and Mary’s brother, Reem (Tracy Morgan), travel to Zamunda — ostensibly to groom Lavelle for a regal future, but Akeem would rather use him as a puppet to prop up a strength he’s sorely lacking.
One of many films with theatrical intentions inverted by a global pandemic, Coming 2 America now arrives Friday to stream on Amazon Prime Video — which paid Paramount Pictures $125 million for the privilege. Perhaps it’s purely psychological, but Coming 2 America appears even less cinematic than such episodic Prime series as Jack Ryan or Goliath. The original’s vibrant colors and palatial fineries of Zamunda, as well as its fume-choked Queens scenes, pop in the 4K remaster also available to stream on Prime. Upon its upload to Amazon’s servers, the sequel appears to have been flattened into a thin sheet of visually flavorless, plasticine-pastel taffy. It’s a depressing disservice to Oscar winner Ruth Carter’s sumptuous costume design and another baffling case of perfunctory point-and-shoot filmmaking from director Craig Brewer, who previously worked with Murphy on 2019’s Dolemite is My Name but who cut his teeth with the sizzling, sweltering sensations of Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan.
If you ever wondered how Murphy and Hall might look in an ill-advised Lawnmower Man sequel, check out the dismal de-aging on their characters in re-staged, and retconned, sequences from the original. And for all his inexcusable egomania and on-set endangerment, the original film’s director (John Landis) knew how to frame a joke. Brewer … doesn’t, swapping in a spray-and-pray approach that enough funny people in a scene at once will suffice.
At least those prayers get a decent return on investment when Morgan, Jones, Snipes and Fowler spice things up as new-class characters. Morgan’s boastful braggadocio is reliable for a couple big laughs. Jones has mastered the minutiae of selling even the most easily spotted joke. Much as he did in Dolemite, Snipes saunters off with each of his high-stepping strutter appearances as Izzi (whose army’s training-camp regimen also represents one of few new sight gags in play). Fowler makes a persuasive case to become a reliable leading man in material not so beholden to blockbusters released when he was in diapers.
Losing the Oscar for Dreamgirls, though, seems to have dissolved whatever last damn Murphy had to give. His reprisal of Akeem is decent enough, just neither surprising nor showing much depth of feeling in his failures as a father, husband, friend or ruler. Murphy’s (and Hall’s) most electrifying moments come when they resurrect the cutters and customers of the My-T-Sharp barber shop, which has not only survived the gentrification of Queens but seems to act like a time capsule for the likes of their characters Clarence, Saul and Morris, who haven’t aged a day. Seeing Clint Smith back as Sweets, the one who doubts all of Clarence’s famous encounters, is also good for a smile. He’s joined by a startling deep bench of returning players from the first film. Basically, if they’re still alive and not too famous, you’ll probably see them again.
Although this is a supernaturally low bar to clear, Coming 2 America also offers stronger stewardship of inherited intellectual property from co-writer Kenya Barris (TV’s black•ish) than his fumbling of 2019’s abysmal Shaft requel. The sharpest moments of Coming 2 America find its characters arbitrating cultural or interpersonal animosities into agreements or, at the very least, acceptance. There are some thoughtful clashes and troubling commonalities between Lavelle’s rudderless contemporary life in Queens and the tired traditions of Zamundan rule. Its conclusion is rooted more in a confrontation of personal growth than a parade of funny business. Whenever its characters find ways to cooperatively clap back at the claustrophobic thinking that boxes them in, Coming 2 America crackles to some life of its own.
“It is also a tradition that times must, and always do, change.” Akeem’s words ultimately echo back to where he, Lavelle and an unlikely blended family wind up. If only Coming 2 America spent more time being its own movie rather than a middling multimillion-dollar mimicry.