Quite often in the world of sequels, there’s a fine line between nostalgia-mining and genuinely trying to do something new with characters who, in the case of the Eddie Murphy vehicle Coming 2 America, were introduced more than 30 years ago in the highly quotable Coming To America. On paper, the new film looks like a winner. Murphy returns as Prince Akeem of the fictional African nation of Zamunda, this time being directed by his Dolomite Is My Name collaborator Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan). Also returning is pretty much everyone who had even the smallest supporting role in the original movie, including all of the barbershop characters that Murphy and co-star Arsenio Hall play—so it’s easy to get comfortable and complicit in the familiarity of it all.
As the film opens, Akeem’s father, King Jaffe (James Earl Jones) is on the verge of dying when the military dictator of a neighboring nation of Nextdoria, Gen. Izzi (Wesley Snipes), threatens to invade Zamunda if Akeem does not agree to certain concessions. It is then that Izzi reveals that he has discovered that Akeem has an illegitimate son living in America (presumably sired off-camera during the events of the first film). Having only three daughters with wife Lisa (Shari Headley), Akeem agrees to head back to America, find this son, and bring him back to marry him off to Izzi’s daughter, Bopoto (Teyana Taylor). None of this sits well with Akeem’s daughters, especially the eldest, Meeka (KiKi Layne, If Beele Street Could Talk, The Old Guard), who resents the current system that makes her ineligible to be next in line for the crown despite having trained for the position her whole life.
Akeem and Semmi (Hall) head back to America, where they eventually track down said bastard child, Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler), still living with his mother Mary (Leslie Jones, who I’m pretty sure is vaguely depicted date-raping Murphy in the 1980s) and frequent family visitor Uncle Reem (Tracy Morgan). We drift through culture-clash jokes once again, but something about the familiarity of it all and the PG-13-rated material (the original film was rated R) just doesn’t land the way it’s meant to. I happen to think Jones and Morgan are two of the funniest people on earth, and they deliver as well as they’re allowed to under the ratings restriction.
I wish these feelings of being held back were limited to the supporting cast, but even Murphy and Hall seem to bear the brunt of these restrictions as well. The filmmakers can spin the decision to go with a more family-friendly rating as much as they want, but it just doesn’t feel like the same world that we grew to love more than three decades ago. Also, this version of Akeem isn’t the sheltered young man he was, so he’s plenty familiar with cultures from other nations, especially America. As a result, the fish-out-of-water scenario is gone along with the edgier jokes. So the few times I laughed almost seemed like accidents and not the result of solid writing or skillful improv.
There’s an extended dance number between Fowler and Taylor set to Prince’s “Get Off” that is pretty great, and the return of Murphy’s alter-ego, singer Randy Watson (and his glorious band Sexual Chocolate), was also welcome, albeit far too brief. There’s barely even an acknowledgment that, in the time since Coming To America, another fictional African nation has become far more popular and inspirational—one of the jokes I laughed the hardest at in one of the early trailers didn’t even make the film’s final cut.
Fowler certainly has a great deal of energy, but I’m not sold on him as a comedic force, whereas the 58-year-old Snipes wipes the floor with those around him in terms of his passion for this flatly written villain role. His performance in Dolomite was overplayed to the detriment of the film, but here, it makes more sense and works beautifully, reminding us what a comedic talent Snipes can be. Murphy and Hall look like they’ve barely aged a week in 30-plus years, but staying younger doesn’t help sell the idea that this new story is in any way timeless.
The costumes by Oscar-winner Ruth E. Carter are extraordinary, the production design is top notch (the recreation of the barbershop, down to the ancient headshots, is mind blowing), but it’s all window dressing for a production that struck me as subpar and a bit desperate. I was eagerly awaiting this movie, so I hadn’t made up my mind in advance that doing a sequel to a comedy masterpiece was a bad idea. The deciding factor for me was the realization that I barely laughed, despite the numerous references to the first movie (or perhaps because of them). Coming 2 America is a noble and spirited effort that simply comes up disappointingly short.
The film is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
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