'Coming 2 America' Sows More Than Its Royal Oats03/04/2021
I don’t envy the job of anyone tasked with taking a classic Eighties comedy — Coming to America, say — and making a decades-later sequel that tries to please its guaranteed audience. Namely, everyone who loved the original, people who’ve rewatched it a million times, who have Soul Glo memes saved on their phones, who know every word to “Sexual Chocolate,” who — as in my case — grew up in families where Coming to America was probably the only consensus movie that everyone from my grandmother down to myself and my cousins would all crowd around the television to watch and rewatch. It’s a fine line that practically begs to make Goldilocks of us all. Too close to the original, and we’ll complain that we may as well just have rewatched the original (which we will anyway); stray too far and we’ll say, “You’ve gone too far.” That’s the game.
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And Coming 2 America, directed by Craig Brewer, plays it pretty well. The gang’s (almost) all here: Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall, Shari Headley, James Earl Jones, Louie Anderson, Paul Bates — even John Amos. Only the jheri-curled Eriq La Salle, Allison Dean (who played Headley’s younger sister), and the late Madge Sinclair (who played the mother of Prince Hakeem with such memorable poise) are missing and, frankly, missed.
But not because this 2021 sequel is lacking for material. Coming 2 America takes the same idea — fish-out-of-water meets black romantic comedy meets every possible excuse for Murphy and Hall to play as many characters as possible — and gives it a Next Generation spin, only flipping the script. Instead of a humorously bewildered prince, Hakeem Joffer (Murphy), making the trek from Zamunda to Queens, we get a young man from Queens, Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler), catapulted into a strange new life in Zamunda. The result: a movie that’s funniest when it plays the hits and when, thanks to some fresh faces in the room — among them Leslie Jones, Wesley Snipes, Tracy Morgan, and Nomzamo Mbatha — it adds characters who fit in so seamlessly they could just have well have been in the original. Truly: a Coming 2 America sequel without Jones and Jordan is, in retrospect, a little hard to imagine — not only because of the SNL connection, but there’s also that. (Here’s where it may as well be noted that Colin Jost is in this movie for some reason, and he’s about as out of place here as the Pepsi product placement.)
The story? You’ll recognize it. Suffice it to say that wild oats were sown in back in 1988 which, well, technically led to an heir. Which is complicated news given the life that Hakeem — once a prince, now a king — lives with Queen Lisa (Headley) and his three daughters (played by KiKi Layne, Akiley Love, and Bella Murphy, real-life daughter of Eddie), the oldest of which, Princess Meeka (Layne), has her eyes on the throne despite laws that forbid a woman wearing the crown. Imagine some random kid from Queens showing up to claim what would, in an ideal world, be yours — what you hope your father will be a big enough man to bestow upon you — and you can imagine the new tension added to this movie. And the chance at shaking up the gender dynamics.
That tension, though, is just a vehicle for the movie’s main stars to do their thing with a veneer of newness. There’s still an arranged marriage for the Zamundan prince to juggle, as his father did (which is where Snipes, playing the swaggering General Izzi of Nextdoria, comes into play); there’s still a chance for a quartet of barbershop jokesters to almost run away with the movie; and with the addition of Teyana Taylor, as the daughter of General Izzi, there’s even more song and dance. It’s like watching a movie mold itself around the laugh track of the original. But when the original is genuinely funny…
A not-uncommon complaint about Craig Brewer’s last stab at a franchise property, his 2011 take on the popcorn classic Footloose, was that it hewed so closely to the original that it had no identity of its own. (“I was wickedly tempted to reprint my 1984 review, word for word,” wrote Roger Ebert. “But That Would be Wrong.”) Coming 2 America is a technically a sequel, not a remake, but in the spirit of both the remakes and sequels we’ve been bombarded with of late, it may be wisest to consider it an update: a gentle massaging of the Eighties humor which, nowadays, may feel a little out of date, maybe even cringe. The script is credited to Kenya Barris, Barry W. Blaustein, and David Sheffield, and bears Barris’ fingerprints most of all, down to a sneaky nod to Barbershop, his breakout writing credit. Coming 2 America takes a little after the moralizing familiar to his other work and isn’t necessarily more interesting for it, only more modern.
But keeping up with the times isn’t a bad thing. Without touting itself as a band-aid, Coming 2 America offers splashes of self-aware corrective. It was a bit fucked (and also funny; comedy is a treacherous animal) for the original movie to reduce Prince Hakeem’s intended, Imani (Vanessa Bell Calloway), to a barking nobody back in 1988. The new movie provides an answer to this. On the other hand, the fact that Hakeem went to Queens to find his queen — the fact that he wanted a wife with a mind of her own — was also the point, as the new movie very well knows, and comfortably rehashes.
Besides, the real butt of that joke was the backwardness of Zamunda, primitive in its social expectations despite all that kingly glamor. Black Americans’ ideas about life in Africa was also, always, one of the central jokes of Coming to America, though whether the joke was on Western misconceptions about Africa or African cultures in themselves is a debate — the kind of debate you have to push out of mind if what you want is simply to enjoy the movie. Coming 2 America offers a few steps forward (a winking cameo from the hit musician Davido, for example) and maybe a couple steps back, on that front. General Izzi: a complicated case in point. (Snipes is, as ever, a great time regardless.) What’s clear is that Murphy and Brewer struck onto something with their last collaboration, Dolemite Is My Name, a better movie for giving them a chance to do something original in the guise of doing something predictable. Seeing them retain some of that rhythm here is refreshing, however. Coming 2 America is a good time — even more, it’s evidence that this actor/director pair are on the verge of something great.
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