It is one of those notions that is too often true – while we may lead calls for change when we are young; as we age, we become more accepting of the status quo. Yes, we get older and the fire in our bellies dies away; we wake up one morning and find the heat cooled, replaced by a layer of fat. The important questions are what we choose to do upon noticing that, what we choose to do if something comes along to reawaken that flame?
This is exactly where we find Prince Akeem of Zamunda 30 years after his trip to New York as “Coming 2 America” opens. Prince Akeem has grown soft and complacent, willing to accept the parts of Zamunda he so rebelled against when he was young. He has settled into middle age.
Eddie Murphy is back as Akeem for this sequel, as is Arsenio Hall, Lisa Headley, James Earl Jones, Louie Anderson, John Amos, and more from 1988’s “Coming to America.” And, even if the new movie has a terrible title (seriously, have a conversation with someone using the film’s title and see if they know if you’re talking about the original or the sequel), it isn’t without wisdom and charm.
Without getting bogged down in the details, Akeem and Lisa (Headley) have three daughters and Zamunda must be ruled by a man, which the Prince accepts but makes the rest of his family uneasy. Akeem finds out, however, that during his trip to Queens in the 1980s, he did produce a male heir, Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler), and so he brings Lavelle and his mother, Mary (Leslie Jones), to Zamunda so the boy can learn to be king.
What we have then is a flip on the first film’s culture clash, with a boy from Queens going to Zamunda rather than vice versa. We also have the added complication of Akeem’s oldest daughter, Meeka (KiKi Layne), being thrust aside from the role for which she’s trained her whole life (even if the law said it was meant to be). As this is a sequel to a wildly successful comedy, we, too, have the return of so many of the characters played by Hall and Murphy in the original.
Not to be reductive, but one of the big questions you probably have reading this is: is it funny? Does “Coming 2 America” live up to its incredible legacy?
First off, that’s actually two questions, but I’ll answer them both. Like Akeem, I believe myself magnanimous.
For the first question – it is funny. It isn’t anywhere near as funny as the previous movie, but there is still much to laugh about – Wesley Snipes as the leader of the neighboring nation, Nexdoria, is more than a little fun. A funeral for King Joffer (James Earl Jones), requested by the king to be held while he’s still alive because of how great it’s going to be, is in fact pretty great.
Then, for the second question – it depends on what you mean by legacy. There is no way that “Coming 2 America” is going to go down as a powerhouse movie in the way the first one has, but it’s still really smart. We all expect it to do some sort of inversion of the first film, and it does, but it manages to partially step out of that film’s shadow as well. By expanding the number of stories it has to tell—Akeem’s and Lavelle’s—it (as is often the case) doesn’t get to do as much on any of them as it might, but it still works. The pacing here is sometimes a problem, it feels as though Murphy himself is sometimes missing as we explore Lavelle’s life, but Fowler offers up an engaging character nonetheless. We don’t want him instead of Murphy, but there’s no problem having him as an addition.
The biggest problem with the film is Headley and Layne too often taking a backseat. Even if the issues come up, we do not truly explore Lisa’s upset learning of Lavelle nor Meeka’s learning that she won’t be queen (even if that meant her having to take a king). Both actresses do well in the supporting nature of the roles, but one can’t shake the feeling that the film is stronger if they are brought closer to the fore.
The rest of the large supporting cast, which includes Nomzamo Mbatha, Bella Murphy, Tracy Morgan, Akiley Love, and Paul Bates is great as well. It is something of an embarrassment of riches – every time we see a character on screen, we want to know more about them, we want to see their story, and one movie can only provide so many answers (this is not a suggestion that we need spinoffs).
Director Craig Brewer, using the screenplay from Kenya Barris and Barry W. Blaustein & David Sheffield, might tilt slightly too much towards nostalgia from time to time, but never to a degree where it feels like “Coming 2 America” is simply resting on the laurels of its predecessor. It remains true here that the plethora of individuals Murphy and Hall portray under heavy amounts of makeup and prosthetics are exceptional, and that’s the struggle that Brewer sometimes finds vis-à-vis nostalgia – put them on screen too much or have too many appear and the movie doesn’t feel new, put them on screen less and the movie isn’t as humorous.
The costumes (whether they are of folks from Queens or Zamunda or Nexdoria) are excellent, as is the music. One can’t ever quite accept Akeem as the real ruler of a country, but the place looks great.
Maybe, with 2019’s “Dolemite is my Name” and now “Coming 2 America,” Murphy is stoking that old fire in his belly. He is just as charismatic now as he has ever been and can be just as much of a power on screen. Living up to the films he made earlier in his career may not be easy, but watching him bring characters to life remains fantastic.
photo credit: Amazon Studios