‘Coming 2 America’More than 30 years later, Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall reunite for a return trip from Zamunda to New York.
Coming 2 America, by contrast, practically demands encyclopedic recall of the original; it exists mainly as a vessel to reunite characters and redo classic bits from the first Coming to America.
That’s kind of the key to the new film’s rickety charm, even if that also means it’s doomed to live forever in the shadow of its mega successful original.
Reclaiming the spirit of the first Coming 2 America might not be as simple as it sounds. Back in 1988, Eddie Murphy was probably the biggest comedy star on the planet, and a lot of his most successful stand-up from that era has dated so preposterously that it could now be its own meta-humor bit.
The story of the sequel also directly relates to that earlier trip Prince Akeem and his close friend and adviser Semmi (Arsenio Hall) took to the U.S. lo these many years ago. Akeem needs a male heir to inherit his throne, or his kingdom will be in danger of falling into the hands of a strongman, General Izzi (a terrific Wesley Snipes), the preening, strutting, kilt-wearing warlord of neighboring Nextdoria who spends his free time reading storybooks to his army of child soldiers.
(Izzi’s sister was betrothed to Akeem in Coming 2 America, and she’s still barking like a dog — another hilarious throwaway bit that will make literally zero sense to anyone who hasn’t seen the first film fairly recently.) Akeem, who only has daughters, discovers that he actually has a son, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), whom he fathered out-of-wedlock back in New York during a zonked-out, half-remembered (and quite possibly nonconsensual on his part, which may understandably raise some eyebrows) coupling with party girl Mary (Leslie Jones). So, naturally, he and Semmi head back to New York to find the young man and bring him back to Zamunda to take his place as first in line to the throne.
In other words, Coming 2 America is both figuratively and literally a nostalgia tour. Akeem and Semmi land in the same Queens neighborhood as before, and of course it has gentrified beyond belief — save for the still-standing, still-decrepit My-T-Sharp barbershop, still populated with its trio of politically incorrect, motormouth barbers Mr. Clarence (also Murphy), Morris (also Hall), and Sweets (longtime Murphy collaborator Clint Smith), as well as their eternal customer, Saul (also Murphy). One might imagine that Murphy, Hall, and their team would try to tiptoe through a minefield of potentially problematic humor here, but no, they sort of gleefully step on all the mines. The barbershop greets Akeem and Semmi with a hearty “Hey, it’s Kunta Kinte and Ebola!” and follows that up with “Famine and Blood Diamond!” and “Nelson Mandela and Winnie!” Whereupon a random customer chimes in with “Those hungry babies with the flies on their faces!” and suddenly everyone goes stone-faced. “You talk that kind of shit about the hungry babies, you better get out of my chair,” Mr. Clarence says, and promptly kicks the guy out. These gabby old men may be out of touch, but even they have their limits.
The jokes, in other words, are the joke here. It’s a clever way to carve out some room — a safe space, if you will — for this type of humor, a way to indulge it while acknowledging that you know it’s not entirely kosher anymore.
The best new things in Coming 2 America are also, weirdly, the worst new things in Coming 2 America. Snipes’s flamboyant warlord pretty much steals the show (much as his pretentious director character stole Dolemite), but the show doesn’t steal him back. Izzi is given almost nothing to do except show up, sneer a few threats, and then disappear. Admittedly, he does all this fabulously, but his presence feels clipped: The script actually seems to be setting up a bigger, more villainous role for him. A late-breaking attempt to give him more to do narratively is immediately snuffed out, as if the production realized it didn’t really have the time or the money for a whole new subplot. Similarly, Tracy Morgan, playing Lavelle’s hustler uncle, gets a few errant wisecracks and gets to emcee one final ceremony, but that’s about it. Until you realize that in the world of Coming 2 America, that’s pretty much all anyone is asked to do.