Sunday, May 26, 2024

Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall Can’t Save ‘Coming 2 America’

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Coming 2 America reminds us that just because we would love a sequel doesn’t mean we should get a sequel. Or at least not this sequel. Now, it would be unfair of me to act as if I didn’t laugh because I did, but not enough to say sitting through the movie was worth it.

Craig Brewer brings a shocking lack of style to Coming 2 America. On the one hand, this is fine, it is a comedy after all, and the original, while a classic, is not known for its aesthetic. But on the other hand, to have the director of Hustle & FlowBlack Snake Moan, and Dolemite is My Name turn in something so visually bland and lifeless as Coming 2 America is distressing.

Despite reuniting virtually the entire original cast, Coming 2 America never feels like anything but a poor imitation of the original. Eddie Murphy’s Prince Akeem is ascending to the throne, now that his father King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) is dying. But he doesn’t have a male heir, something that troubles both his father and his loyal servant Semmi (Arsenio Hall).

Zamunda’s militaristic neighbor Nextdooria, ruled by the scowling and scheming General Izzi (Wesley Snipes) is just itching to get his hands on Zamunda’s wealth. He’s fine with either arranged marriages between their children or outright war, whichever gets him the fastest result. Enter Akeem’s newly discovered bastard son Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler).

Brewer attempts to explain Lavelle’s existence by giving us a flashback which includes editing a scene from the original into the current movie, as well as tacking on a backstory. While at the club looking for Akeem’s Princess, Semmi steps away and meets two girls, one of whom is Mary (Leslie Jones), Lavelle’s mother. The film explains away Akeem’s ignorance of having slept with Mary by having Mary drug Akeem and taking advantage of him while he’s stoned.

If you’re wondering if I’m saying the plot of Coming 2 America hinges on the fact that Eddie Murphy’s Akeem is drugged and date raped, you would be correct. I was halfway through the movie before I realized the reason why they weren’t addressing that Akeem was sexually assaulted was that the film didn’t realize he had been sexually assaulted.

Even putting that aside, the script by Kenya Barris, David Sheffield, and Barry W. Blaustein is overburdened with issues it could care less about. Issues of trying to address the roles of women in modern-day Zamunda, or how the once progressive and idealistic Akeem has become trenchant and traditional. These storylines feel forced and often feel more like mere lip service rather than an actual story.

Coming 2 America wants to be everything for everybody. We get the sense that Brewer is trying to reunite everyone and make the film like a family reunion. It’s nice to see everyone again but it never attempts anything to justify bringing them back. 

Even Akeem’s Queen, Lisa (Shari Headley), is given precious little to do. Though towards the end we discover she enjoyed having Mary at the castle because it reminded her of being back home in Queens. It was one of the few moments in which Headley is called upon to do something other than stare disapprovingly or fake a smile.

Murphy and Hall recreate their iconic characters from the original. The Barbershop crew, Randy Watson, and Reverend Brown all make appearances throughout the film. Hall plays a new character, an ancient witch doctor named Baba, who informs Akeem of his bastard son. But these moments feel forced. Seeing Murphy and Hall don makeup and prosthetics brings back memories but they don’t add to them.

The script for Coming 2 America has never met a joke it couldn’t milk to death. The way everyone refers to Lavelle as the “bastard son” would be funny but neither the script nor the cast ever plays with it. It is just that joke time and time again with no variation except who’s telling it. The same goes for the kingdom of Nextdooria, a funny pun but soon grows wearisome as again, the film never has any fun with it. Characters just saying “Nextdooria” grows old especially if no one ever bothers to finds a way to make it funny.

Coming 2 America wants you to feel celebratory that these characters have returned and it has pulled out all the stops. But it all falls flat. Do you realize how bland a movie has to be to have En Vogue, Salt-N-Peppa, and Gladys Knight perform together, and instead of coming away with a grin on my face I’m left wondering, “That’s it?” 

Though I did enjoy the use of Morgan Freeman as Morgan Freeman being hired to narrate the life of King Joffe as if it was The Lion King for his living funeral. That’s the thing about Coming 2 America, it’s not all bad, but it’s bad enough that it spoils the rest. 

For example, I liked the relationship between Akeem and his three daughters Princess Meeka (Kiki Layne), Princess Omma (Bella Murphy), and Princess Tinashe (Akiley Love). Truthfully I wanted more of the royal family, they seemed happy and delighted to be around each other.

At one point Akeem tells Semmi that he loves the new words his daughters have taught him such as “fleek”. His daughters tease him and tell him the word is no longer cool. Akeem is disappointed not because he is out of the loop but because he so enjoyed the word. Seeing a father taking pleasure in the fashions of trends the younger generation while being wistful as their passing was heartwarming.

One scene, early on, pops out as a brief glimpse of what the movie could have been. Javelle is at a Broker firm interviewing for a job with Mr. Duke (Colin Jost). He is the grandson of the Duke Brothers played by Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy whose cameo in the first Coming to America as a pair of bums to whom Akeem gives a wad of cash as a handout. The moment is a clever little call back to Murphy’s earlier hit Trading Places. 

Jost is a perfect blend of brashly arrogant without realizing it, as he tries to assure Lavelle he knows the effects of poverty. He tries to cite different studies but he can’t help his whiteness showing, “Your guy, Neil Degrasse Tyson.” The already awkward interview begins to deteriorate.

Fowler as Akeem’s son isn’t given much to work with. But in the scene with Jost allows him to shine. For the rest of the movie, much like the rest of the cast, he is left to drift aimlessly. If you have the likes of Arsenio Hall, Eddie Murphy, Tracy Morgan, and Leslie Jones struggling to be funny, then chances are, you need to make a few more passes on your script.

Coming 2 America has so much going on that the climax feels simultaneously rushed and slow-moving. It’s as if all of a sudden Brewer realizes he has loose ends to tie up. It doesn’t help the film has been ignoring these loose ends for the entire film. But the most frustrating element has to be how it tries to reconcile with the women in the movie.

Near the end, Akeem sits down with Cleo McDowell (Jon Amos) in McDowell’s kitchen sharing a McFlurby. Cleo asks Akeem what his mother would say about all of this. This is the first mention of Madge Sinclair’s former Queen of Zamunda in the entire film. 

Coming 2 America has no less than six women characters, including Lavelle’s love interest/hairdresser Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha) but none of them command the screen for longer than a scene. None of them have anything resembling an arc. Brewer and the script spend much of the film talking about the women when the film should just be letting the women speak for themselves. It’s a form of cinematic paternalism being dressed up as some form of progressivism.

Some of this could be forgiven, except the sexual assault, which is a hard one to overlook, had the film been funny. But it’s not. These characters who we so love were rooted in a time and place whereas here they are rooted in nothing and so the characters do or say nothing. 

Though it must be said the fact that the film brought back Paul Bates, one of the castle servants, you’ll know him if you see him, warmed the cold cockles of my heart. That Brewer then went the extra mile to give Bates the spotlight so he can duet with Teyana Taylor as they cover Prince’s “Get Off”was easily the highlight of the movie for me. 

Sadly, it was all downhill after that. Even Ruth E. Carter’s costume design, the most visually pleasing aspect of the film, couldn’t save this empty soulless vehicle. Coming 2 America wants to remind us of the original and bathe in the nostalgic warmth. But it never overcomes the feeling that they are exploiting the original instead for a quick paycheck.

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

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