Review: “Coming 2 America” doesn’t live up to hype of 1988 predecessor

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Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Eddie Murphy stars in COMING 2 AMERICA © (Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

by Ryan Hardison, Senior Staff Writer

“Coming 2 America” perfectly illustrates the fundamental problem with any and every sequel: having to live up to the film before it.  

Since “Coming To America” was released in the summer of 1988, every aspect of American culture has shifted, deviated, and been remixed multiple times along with nearly every aspect of society itself. Haircuts are no longer $8, people don’t carry around a walkman anymore, and the Knicks really suck (though things are starting to look up a little bit). Obviously, countless things have changed over time, and with 33 years of build-up, this movie was faced with an impossible amount of hype set by its predecessor, leaving anyone expecting an amazing follow-up bound to be disappointed.  

Nevertheless, “Coming 2 America” continues the Eddie Murphy comeback tour and brings back nearly all the original cast, including James Earl Jones as King Jaffe Joffer, Shari Headley as Princess Lisa McDowell, and Arsenio Hall as Akeem’s best friend Semmi. Also featured are Wesley Snipes, in the midst of his own resurgence, as the antagonist General Izzi, Leslie Jones as Lavelle’s independent mother Mary, and Tracy Morgan as his incompetent uncle Reem. 

There are numerous other callbacks to the previous movie, including the hilarious recurring characters also played by Hall and Murphy including sleazy singer Randy Watson with his band Sexual Chocolate, Reverend Brown, and the senile Queens barbershop employees. Though their cameos are very appreciated, hearing them discuss topical issues in the year 2021 comes off just as awkward as you may expect. 

“Coming 2 America” begins with a fairytale-inspired intro, with Prince Akeem and his Princess Lisa being awoken by their three daughters, exactly thirty years after the events of the first film. All seems well in the beautiful nation of Zamunda but the tyrannical General Izzi of the neighboring country Nextdoria is preparing to invade once the dying King Jaffe eventually passes.

Their only hope of avoiding conflict is to find Akeem’s undisclosed American son, whose existence is only known to Semmi and King Jaffe, and train him to be the next prince of Zamunda. Though Akeem’s studious daughter Meeka, played by KiKi Layne, is perfectly suited to serve on the throne, Zamunda’s male-centered traditions ensure she will never become the primary ruler.

The identity of Akeem’s son is revealed to be 30-year-old Lavelle Junson of Queens, New York, depicted adequately by comedian Jermaine Fowler. Akeem forgot he ever had a drunk sexual encounter with Mary 30 years and nine months prior, and its sudden inclusion in his past New York trip is explained through a sloppy re-editing of old scenes from the original.    

Thus, Akeem and Semmi are tasked with traveling back to Queens and manage to coincidentally find Lavelle on his thirtieth birthday. With little to no trouble at all, they convince him to travel with his mother to Zamunda so he can become royalty. What follows this is eighty or so minutes of Lavelle having a fairly uneventful hero’s journey that produces inconsistent laughs and a pair of other unremarkable storylines introduced along the way.   

In many significant areas, “Coming 2 America” fails to live up to its prior entry. Lavelle’s romantic path heavily resembles Akeem’s earlier adventure to find his queen among Queens. Both resist predetermined marriages and instead desire true love. However, Lavelle’s journey is built solely upon the skill of the talented cast, beautiful set pieces, and gorgeous costumes to uplift the mediocre plot. 

The beauty of the first film was that it boasted goofy characters, edgy jokes, and genuinely great chemistry between all the characters. It gave an authentic depiction of culture shock from a wide-eyed point of view wandering around America, instead of dropping a street-wise adult into an extravagant CGI-infested version of Africa. In place of a charming love story that pokes fun at absurd monarchal luxuries, this flick shows why so many foreign countries are annoyed by the presence of Americans. 

It’s definitely somewhat unfair that this sequel has to be compared to its previous entry, but even as a standalone film it’s pretty standard. 

The mere existence of a “Coming To America” sequel should be a surprise to no one, as Hollywood loves nothing more than re-hashing old concepts with little to no imagination. The screenwriting team of Kenya Barris, Barry Blaustein, and David Sheffield were also very well aware of this, even making an acutely self-aware joke about unnecessary sequels halfway through.

A few recent sequels/reboots like Blade Runner 2049 and Mad Max: Fury Road surprisingly managed to make waves despite their 30-year time differences by successfully redefining the shape of their franchises. Instead of just piggybacking off of previous work, these entries built upon their worlds by switching up the formula to create something eye-catching and creative. This is what “Coming 2 America” wholeheartedly struggles to accomplish. 

The script compiled by Barris, Blaustein, and Sheffield can be summed up as predictable, and not exactly funny enough to justify being made. To make matters worse, much of the dialogue comes off as cringy when trying to be socially and politically relevant. These uncomfortable moments make it seem as if they briefly researched current events by reading a day’s worth of posts on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook to create their stale cultural analysis.  

Overall, the plot wastes some of the greatest things it had to offer. The growth of Akeem’s three young daughters should have received much more attention, and though they weren’t allowed to shine much, the budding actresses still made their scenes memorable.

Every so often, there were a handful of times where the cast got to exhibit their subtle comedic skills, like during the over-the-top funeral of King Jaffe. Featuring a Morgan Freeman eulogy and Gladys Knight singing a Zamunda-themed version of “Midnight Train to Georgia,” it hilarious sums up the ridiculously grand standards of the country. Sadly these delightful moments are too few and far in between.

Though it dutifully continues the original storyline, one big problem is how much character growth from “Coming To America” is disregarded. The new film fails to recognize Akeem for the optimistic, progressive character he already was and instead characterizes him as a spineless yes-man. Since the events of the previous movie were wrapped up so nicely, conflict had to be manufactured somehow.

On top of this, “Coming 2 America” missed the opportunity to analyze America like how they looked at the borough of Queens in 1988. The characters should have spent more time there recognizing how things have changed since they left. Rather, Queens is just used as a setting for a brief detour, while much of the focus is on their disjointed image of Africa.

All in all, there are decent performances all around. Snipes was perfectly cast as the eccentric General Izzi, and the 90-year old Earl Jones shined in his brief appearance but famed South African actress Nomzamo Mbatha really stood out as the royal hairdresser Mirembe and Lavelle’s love interest. These characters gave some semblance of heart and personality to this tale.   

Although the comedic hijinks definitely aren’t helped by its PG-13 rating, the R-rated original had more spirit and laughs to go around and gave Murphy and Hall the freedom to go all out with their secondary characters and impersonations. By relying too much on running gags from the first film to find humor, the movie doesn’t find its own voice as there’s a noticeable struggle between being a family-friendly romantic comedy while simultaneously attempting to get off adult-oriented jokes.  

For the sake of everyone involved, especially Eddie Murphy and co., I hope the check was worth it. Ultimately, “Coming 2 America” is an unsuccessful attempt to capitalize on past success and serves little purpose outside of being a movie you throw on to play as background noise. But on a bright note, it still could have been MUCH worse, and fans of the original will be able to find a sense of enjoyment due to the return of many familiar faces and nostalgic inside jokes. 

5/10 

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