Three decades ago, John Landis was one of Hollywood’s hottest directors, stringing together a series of R-rated comedies that straddled the line between edgy, adult humor and mainstream appeal, from National Lampoon’s Animal House to Trading Places. His 1988 film Coming to America continued that trend, reuniting him with Eddie Murphy for the tale of an African prince who travels to America to find true love.
Although it was a sweet (if somewhat predictable) story at heart, Coming to America was peppered with biting humor, satirizing ’80s America’s out-of-control capitalism and greed and poking at the country’s stark social, economic, and racial divides. And because we live in an era when everything old is new again, that 1988 film now has a sequel — the cutely titled Coming 2 America — that brings Murphy back for another very funny adventure as the African prince but struggles to find the sharp wit of its predecessor.
There and back again
Directed by Craig Brewer, the filmmaker responsible for 2005 Oscars darling Hustle & Flow and Murphy’s award-winning 2019 film Dolemite Is My Name, Coming 2 America returns to the fictional African nation of Zamunda as Prince Akeem Joffer (Murphy) contemplates his ascension to the throne.
The father of three daughters, Akeem’s rule is endangered by the absence of a male heir and the presence of the militaristic General Izzi (Wesley Snipes), who makes no secret of his plans to assassinate Akeem and absorb Zamunda into his neighboring nation of Nextdoria (pronounced “next-door-ia”). Akeem’s concerns are suddenly alleviated, however, when he learns that he does indeed have a son — the child of a one-night stand he had during his prior visit to America.
The film flips the script of the original film by having Akeem bring his son, Lavelle (played by Superior Donuts and Crashing actor Jermaine Fowler), to Zamunda, where his American upbringing creates friction with the traditions and culture of the African nation. Another arranged-marriage plot device has Coming 2 America essentially put a fresh coat of paint on the themes of the original film, as the lead characters learn to find both true love and their true selves over the course of both movies.
Old favorites, new faces
The primary selling point of Coming 2 America is the reunion of Murphy and his original co-star, Arsenio Hall, who find themselves playing not just their original characters — Akeem and his best friend, Semmi, respectively — but also returning to play a host of other supporting roles in the film, thanks to heavy makeup and prosthetics. And in that element, Coming 2 America more than meets expectations.
Murphy and Hall have a level of comfort and easy comedy together that fills every scene they share with a nostalgic warmth. It’s been more than three decades since they played Akeem and Semmi (or any of the other memorable, silly supporting characters they don fake noses and wigs to portray), but the ease with which they slip back into the roles provides a strong foundation for everything else that happens on the screen.
Despite its crowded cast of new and familiar faces, Coming 2 America relies on Murphy and Hall to carry it, and the pair do a wonderful job of it in every scene they share.
Beyond Murphy and Hall, the cast of Coming 2 America features quite a few additional bright spots, with franchise newcomers Tracy Morgan and Leslie Jones — who play Lavelle’s uncle and mother, respectively — delivering exactly the sort of big laughs you hope for when you put them in a film. Snipes also appears to be having a lot of fun as the fiendish Izzi, a caricature of African warlords who provides a nice foil to the tradition-obsessed nobility of Akeem’s royal family.
Reprising their roles from the original film, James Earl Jones, Shari Headley, and John Amos also seem to have no trouble slipping back into character, and Headley in particular provides some memorable moments as Akeem’s expatriate wife, Lisa.
Although Fowler is certainly charismatic and carries a few early scenes — particularly one that pairs him with Saturday Night Live regular Colin Jost — he’s often overshadowed by the comedy heavyweights around him. When the film drifts away from Murphy, Hall, Jones, and Morgan, it tends to lose some momentum, and Fowler never quite holds your attention the way the aforementioned actors do.
Coming 2 America offers no small amount of star power and nostalgia, but it falls frustratingly short in recreating the comedic punch of the first film.
Whether it’s the desire to hit a more mainstream, PG-13 rating, a very different world than the one of the original film, or modern audiences’ expectations, Coming 2 America feels significantly more toned down than its predecessor. Its satire isn’t as biting, and its observational humor feels viewed through a rosier lens than that of the 1988 film. It name-drops pop culture without overtly criticizing it and seems content to grin and shrug its shoulders at the issues it mines for comedy instead of finding a clever way to critique them.
Like its stars, Coming 2 America is older now and more apt to tell a corny dad joke than to cleverly deconstruct a complicated issue with humor. It’s the safer — but not quite curmudgeonly yet — adult in the room, mining the nostalgia of its rebellious younger life.
And for some audiences, that’s likely to be perfectly fine.
Coming 2 America isn’t afraid to make fun of the characters that made the original film memorable, creating caricatures of figures that were already caricatures the first time around. The residents of the Queens barber shop Akeem and Semmi visited in 1988 are older and sillier 30 years later, while Randy Watson (the Rick James-like soul singer played by Murphy in Coming to America) and Reverend Brown (the salacious preacher played by Hall) return a little less randy but just as funny in this follow-up chapter.
In many ways, Coming 2 America feels less like a sequel and more like a family reunion, bringing everyone back for one last party. Everyone’s a little older and wiser and a little less rambunctious, and although there are some new faces on the periphery, you can safely expect to hear the same stories you know and love.
There’s a comfort in Coming 2 America that’s likely to appeal to audiences looking for the familiar, even if it lacks some of the excitement and carefree sentiment of the original.
Depending on where you’re coming from, Coming 2 America could be either exactly what you’re looking for or a watered-down version of what you remember. There’s a lot to like in it, though, no matter what you’re hoping to get from it, and there are a lot of laughs to be found in both the old favorites and the new elements that it offers.
And in the end, that’s a good thing, because a good laugh holds the same value now as it did 30 years ago.
Starring Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall, Coming 2 America premieres March 5 on Amazon Prime Video.
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