COMING TO AMERICA (1988)

  • Director: John Landis
  • Writers: Screenplay by David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein, Story by Eddie Murphy
  • Starring: Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Shari Headley, James Earl Jones, Madge Sinclair, John Amos, Paul Bates, Eriq La Salle, Frankie Faison, Vanessa Bell, Louie Anderson, Allison Dean, Sheila Johnson, and Samuel L. Jackson
  • Accolades: 2 Oscar nominations (Best Costumes, Best Makeup)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Amazon Prime, buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

The long-awaited sequel to Coming to America (somewhat confusingly titled Coming 2 America) was originally supposed to be in theaters late last year, but because of, you know, the world, it arrives today on Amazon. Given this development, it seemed like a reasonable time to feature the original movie, which was one of the biggest hits of its year, even if it was 33 years ago at this point. That the movie was successful is not surprising, given that it starred Eddie Murphy, one of the biggest American box office draws at the time. His films over the prior handful of years included 48 Hrs., two Beverly Hills Cop movies, and Trading Places, massive hits all. For people of the right age, these were seminal movies, but I’m not actually sure any of them are watched much by anyone under 40 today.

In many of those movies I just mentioned, Murphy is the source of much of the comedy. Here, he tones down the wisecracks for more of a fish-out-of-water style. I’m not sure his character purposefully makes a joke in the whole movie, with the humor coming out of other people’s reactions to him. Murphy himself received the “story credit” for this movie, though there were immediately allegations that he had taken the idea from a script he had actually been attached to star in years earlier. The lawsuit settled out of court. 

The story is more original in its particulars than its broad strokes, would be how I would describe it. Very unusually for this level of movie in 1988, the movie features an almost entirely Black cast. While promoting the sequel this week on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Murphy stated that the studio had forced him to cast Louie Anderson as his character’s hapless burger restaurant co-worker, on the grounds that the movie had to have at least one white person in the supporting cast. Murphy described being given “a list of white people” and picking Anderson because “he was the funniest white guy I knew.” The producers of this movie understood that it was fairly likely to make them a mint, but I’m not sure they really understood why.

The movie stars Murphy as Akeem, a Prince from a fictional African nation called Zamunda. He is surrounded by servants (mostly beautiful, occasionally topless women), who literally strew the ground he walks on with rose petals, not to mention bathe him and, we thankfully hear and not see, wipe his butt in the bathroom. On his 21st birthday, he is presented with a beautiful wife trained since birth to please him (Vanessa Bell), but tells his father the King (James Earl Jones) that he would rather find an independent woman who loves him for who he is and not because he’s a Prince. With this in mind, his father allows him to travel to America for forty days before getting married, in order to “sow his royal oats,” along with his best friend Semmi (Arsenio Hall).

In America, much weird comedy ensues, as Akeem and Semmi rent an extremely run-down apartment in Queens (their landlord, played by Frankie Faison, opens the door to reveal masking tape outlines on the floor of both a human and a dog. “It’s terrible what they did to that dog,” he remarks), get jobs at a local burger joint (McDowell’s, which I first thought was supposed to be an extremely badly disguised version of McDonald’s, but then the movie introduced a runner about how McDonald’s is out to get them for copyright infringement), and attempt to date in bars. The latter is a failure, but Akeem soon meets his boss’ daughter Lisa (Shari Headley) and falls hard for her. However, there are many complications introduced by her obnoxious boyfriend (a pre-ER Eriq La Salle), her well-intentioned but overtly greedy father (John Amos), and his own parents, who appear in Queens about two-thirds of the way through the movie.

Murphy, now at a point where he had a lot of creative control, brought in John Landis to direct the movie, having worked with him previously on Trading Places. Landis had, to put matters lightly, hit a bit of a bump in his career, and this was the first movie he directed after being acquitted of manslaughter charges from a deadly accident on the set of The Twilight Zone: The Movie. The short version is that an accident involving special effects pyrotechnics apparently caused a helicopter to crash, killing actor Vic Morrow and two child actors whose participation it turned out Landis and the producers had not cleared through the usual child welfare channels. Landis was acquitted of the charges (he had obviously not actually set off the pyrotechnic that caused the blast, though the degree to which he had not followed relevant safety rules in the lead-up to the accident remains highly disputed), though he later settled civil cases with the families of various victims. Though a free man, he was considered persona non grata in Hollywood until Murphy got him back in the door.

Landis’ pre-accident hits had included An American Werewolf in London, and he brought in his legendary makeup guru from that film, Rick Baker, to work here. Coming to America was the first of a long series of movies (seemingly of ever-decreasing quality) in which Murphy played several characters in a movie using elaborate makeup, like Peter Sellers, Jerry Lewis, and even Alec Guinness had done before him. Here, the effect is fairly toned down, with Murphy and his co-star Arsenio Hall each playing several old men hanging out in the barber shop on the ground floor of the apartment building. Hall also makes a bizarre appearance as the preacher at the local church, whose sermon includes bringing up a bunch of girls in bikinis as “proof of the existence of God.” You can tell that they’re younger guys in makeup, because at this point we’ve seen that enough times to know what it looks like, but I at least thought the makeup was good enough that it didn’t take me out of the story when Murphy is getting a haircut from a character he’s also playing. As for why Murphy and Hall chose to do this in this movie, I honestly couldn’t say. All of their extra characters are bit parts completely extraneous to the plot. It feels as if Murphy had two ideas, one where he played an African Prince and one where he played a bunch of characters in heavy makeup, and decided to do both in one movie, just because he could.

Eddie Murphy is not normally exactly my cup of tea. I like him fine, but I class him in the same slapstick-heavy class as other Saturday Night Live alums over the years like Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler. That is to say, he’s wildly popular, and he’s not a disqualifying factor for me to see a movie, but he’s also probably not actually a plus. Certainly both Carrey and Sandler have made movies I’ve liked over the years (I think Carrey’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind might be a serious candidate for my single favorite movie bar none, actually), and I have enjoyed movies over the years with Murphy in them, too. I actually think this might be the most fun I’ve had watching him in something. The script is pretty funny, and his performance is funny because of the character he’s playing, not because he’s just running off at the mouth playing himself. 

For all of the heavy makeup he’s sometimes in, Murphy has often ended up basically playing live action versions of the Donkey from Shrek. Here he has a different character and it works pretty well. And there is no question that Murphy, then and now, can deliver a funny line when he gets it. In one famous scene from this movie, he stands on his tiny apartment balcony, and shouts greetings to the neighborhood. “Fuck you!” comes one typically surly New York reply. “Yes, fuck you too!” Murphy’s character happily shouts back, arms wide. Nobody else could quite have pulled off that line the same way.

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