VOD film review: Coming to America
Mark Harrison | On 18, Jan 2020
Director: John Landis
Cast: Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Shari Headley, John Amos, James Earl Jones
Once upon a time, Eddie Murphy could get just about any film made, but there’s something special about Coming to America being the star’s first romantic comedy. Alongside its high joke rate and superb art direction, there’s an underrated, old-fashioned quality to the way this hoists a classical romance involving royals and true love into a profanity-laden, slapstick-happy 1980s comedy.
Murphy’s character (or one of them) is Prince Akeem, sole heir to the African kingdom of Zamunda, who secretly hopes to find love in New York City when his father King Joffe (James Earl Jones) permits him to take a trip abroad before entering an arranged marriage. Helped and sometimes hindered by his loyal valet Semmi (Arsenio Hall), he poses as a foreign student in Queens (where else?) and soon falls for Lisa (Shari Headley), a charity volunteer who couldn’t be more different from his intended bride.
As straightforward as the premise sounds, director John Landis brings it to the screen quite ambitiously. The film wound up bagging two Oscar nominations, for Deborah Nadoolman Landis’ costume design and Rick Baker’s make-up, which goes to show the craft on display in an otherwise quite sweet and unassuming comedy.
The film opens strongly by luxuriating in the fictional nation of Zamunda, a richly drawn fantasia that plays as much like a live-action fairytale as you can reasonably expect for a grown-up comedy. Black Panther was a quantum leap forward for fictional African nations on screen, but this still looks incredible. Granted, the setup is a little indulgent, considering that the film doesn’t really get funny until it reaches Queens, but you can hardly fault it when the set design looks this good.
It sets a tone, though, giving the film room to make Queens sillier and more unrealistic to Akeem and Semmi as tourists, making the smallest jokes pop even bigger than they otherwise would. From the McDonalds-spoofing restaurant owned by Lisa’s father (John Amos, on cracking form) to the daft asides from the locals – the “falling down the stairs trick” never fails to get a laugh – the film makes New York the more ridiculous of the two locales, rather than simply making the opulently dressed Zamundans do the fish-out-of-water thing.
The supporting performances are suitably brilliant too (especially Amos and Jones), but then most of them are only two people. The film’s marketing promised “the four funniest men in America are Eddie Murphy” and, sure enough, this marks Murphy’s first dalliance with playing multiple characters in a feature, which would carry on for better and for worse with The Nutty Professor and Norbit. Hall gets stuck in with playing numerous characters as well, but even so, it’s Murphy who revels in bringing familiar voices from his stand-up sets to life through Baker’s prosthetic creations, including Clarence, Saul, and Sexual Chocolate frontman Randy Watson.
It’s almost as if any potential archness gets siphoned off through those exercises, because it’s the sincerity of the piece that makes this such a hit. The film may be a little long and indulgent, in the same way as modern comedies can be, but where most recent films would over-complicate a culture-clash remake or an updated fairytale, the simplicity of David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein’s script is completely disarming.
And yet, as Akeem observes, the times do and must always change, so there are one or two bits that don’t hold up so well. Chiefly, the film struggles to sustain any chemistry between Akeem and Lisa in between a few nicely executed romantic moments. Headley gives a perfectly loveable performance, but the script gives her the same old song-sheet as countless comedy movie love interests before and since. Her relatively thin material stands out all the more given that it’s supposed to be a film about Akeem searching for a wife with real character.
That’s the sort of oversight we hope that the sequel, ingeniously titled Coming 2 America, will rectify – given Murphy’s recently unearthed comments about the breakdown of his working relationship with Landis, it’s no surprise that Dolemite Is My Name’s Craig Brewer is taking the reins for the next one, which actually bodes well for what seems, on the face of it, to be a staggeringly unlikely legacyquel.
Still, Coming To America stands as something of a departure for Murphy, while also feeling like the sort of film only he could have made. Whether it’s in Zamunda or New York, the film comes with an ineffable sense of place that allows you to settle in and enjoy it time and time again. The jokes and the story may not be startlingly original, but the overall effect is that of an utterly unique rom-com.