COMING 2 AMERICA (2021)
King Akeem learns he has a long-lost son in the US and must return to New York City to build a relationship with his heir.
Sequels with long gaps between them sound like a risk, but many working out fine (Mad Max: Fury Road, Toy Story 3, Blade Runner 2049). However, that’s less true of comedy hits, with Dumb and Dumber To (2014) a recent example of the difficulty in making audiences laugh when culture’s changed and actors have aged. Most comedies take place in the normal world, so it’s often the case that a concept that worked once feels out of place more than seven years later. Coming 2 America is the follow-up to Coming to America (1988), so an extraordinary 33 years has passed since Eddie Murphy’s late-1980s blockbuster.
Luckily, Coming to America’s concept of an African prince travelling to New York City to search for a bride is one that can be approached from a different angle. Coming 2 America finds Akeem (Murphy) as the newly-crowned King of Zamunda, looking for a male heir rather than a bride, which takes him back to the Big Apple once he’s told he has an illegitimate son living there unaware of his royal bloodline. It’s almost a remake of the first adventure, but with Akeem’s son, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), soon becoming the focus of a Coming to Zamunda movie. Or rather he should be the focus. One problem with this sequel is that it has to operate as an Eddie Murphy vehicle, but that’s like making Coming to America from the perspective of King Joffer (James Earl Jones).
Craig Brewer directs this belated follow-up, after impressing Eddie Murphy while making Dolemite Is My Name (2019) together. He’s another white filmmaker (as John Landis was in ’88), but at least he’s more attuned to black cinema—with Hustle & Flow (2005), Black Snake Moan (2006), and episodes of Empire (2015-19) in his filmography. Coming 2 America was also intended for the big-screen before Amazon Studios picked it up for distribution, due to the coronavirus pandemic, so there’s legitimacy to proceedings that in-house SVOD movies often lack. That said, the $60M budget appears to have been prioritised on on hiring the huge ensemble, plus booking surprise cameos, as the production itself is mostly limited to sound stages. And that’s in unfortunately contrast to the real-life location shooting of the original, which gave that movie a better sense of place and made it feel less like a glorified sitcom.
Coming 2 America is so enthralled with its legacy that it doesn’t become its own thing. There was potential in a story about an ordinary black man from Queens who’s told he’s the bastard prince of a faraway African country, even if that’s just a racial spin on The Princess Diaries (2001). But as a way of shaking things up, with Lavelle and his working class family descending on Zamunda (to the consternation of the royals), there’s merit to this approach as a way of approaching the material differently.
The problem is that returning screenwriters Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield (with help from Black-ish creator Kenya Barris) can’t resist paying homage to the original at every opportunity. We all expected callbacks and the return of favourite characters (that’s the fun of a sequel), but Coming 2 America is crippled by a reverence for its past. Murphy didn’t want to make this movie without getting as much of the gang back as possible, and he definitely achieved that aim as a producer. Almost everyone except Eriq La Salle (and the late Madge Sinclair) returns for a scene, even if their roles was only fleeting last time! It’s amusing at times, but it cumulatively steals screen-time from new characters in desperate need of attention. Lavelle’s loudmouthed mother Mary (Leslie Jones) and Uncle Reem (Tracy Morgan) are brushed aside after their promising introductions, and potential drama with Akeem’s eldest daughter Meeka (KiKi Layne) losing her place as heir to the throne is malnourished.
The only new character who leaves an impression and is given time to shine is General Izzi (Wesley Snipes), ruler of Zamunda’s neighbouring country Nextdoria. Entering every scene with a little jig and grinning in a way that’s unsettling, Snipes is clearly enjoying getting another opportunity to flex his comedy muscles after Dolemite Is My Name. Interestingly, Murphy was going to play this character behind make-up originally, but wiser heads prevailed and Snipes injects a bit of spice into things. I think someone must have realised the film is a bit flat, as there are also a large number of musical interludes and dance sequences (some involving famous singers), which seem added in order to wake audiences up every twenty-minutes. And they’re certainly the most entertaining part of the movie, so crank the volume up.
Of course, it’s almost impossible to capture lightning in a bottle twice and the likelihood with comedies is especially low. Eddie Murphy is nearly 60 and this version of Akeem’s a different person (having to almost play his father’s part at times), so there’s a different energy to things. He’s not the likeable fish-out-of-water now, he’s a middle-aged husband and father trying to keep his people safe from war. The comedy should be coming from Jermaine Fowler as an ordinary New Yorker who becomes foreign royalty, but that’s obviously not going to happen. But it means his character’s arc feels rushed, as he quickly falls in love with royal groomer Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha) and is suddenly following the arc of Coming to America with an arranged marriage subplot, but without time to make that love story work emotionally.
Ultimately, Coming 2 America has its heart in the right place and there’s the germ of an idea for how to create a good sequel here, but it’s swallowed up by too much calling back to past characters, jokes, dialogue, and even fashion choices. It’s less a film and more a tribute act doubling as a big-budget reunion special. I don’t doubt this will make a lot of OG fans smile in nostalgia (I enjoyed many of the references too!), but the chance to make a worthy companion piece was lost somewhere along the way. And it’s frustrating because a bit of self-control and focus is all that was needed.
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USA | 2021 | 104 MINUTES | 2.00:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Craig Brewer.
writers: Kenya Barris, Barry W. Blaustein & David Sheffield (story by Barry W. Blaustein, David Sheffield & Justin Kanew; based on characters created by Eddie Murphy).
starring: Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Jermaine Fowler, Leslie Jones, Tracy Morgan, KiKi Layne, Shari Headley, Teyana Taylor, Wesley Snipes & James Earl Jones.