COMING 2 AMERICA— 3 STARS
Back in 1988’s Coming to America, what became the “our song” for Prince Akeem Joffer of Zamunda and Lisa McDowell of Queens was the smoky 1958 ballad “To Be Loved” from “Mr. Excitement” Jackie Wilson. Shove aside all the wild characters, makeup tricks, and zany antics on display, and the third verse of Wilson’s song says it all about the true beating heart underneath:
“Some wish to be a king or a queen
Some wish for fortune and fame
But to be, truly, truly, truly loved is
More than all of these things”
We came for the laughs and surely got them, but what holds that comedy classic higher than usual is its true-blue love story. For Eddie Murphy to play a romantic lead of courtship principles and decency, instead of the slick lothario type that made him a bankable megastar, lifted his charm and that of the movie as well. The upright pursuit of “a woman to arouse my intellect as well as my loins” is inherited for a new era with Coming 2 America. Don’t worry, we still get the wild and zany too.
It’s been thirty years since Akeem (Murphy) brought home and married his American-found Queen Lisa (Shari Headley). He’s been blessed-yet-cursed with three daughters. Zamundan law, still stewarded by an ailing King Jaffe (James Earl Jones), demands only male heirs carry on the royal bloodline, no matter how worthy and perfect Akeem’s oldest daughter Meeka (KiKi Layne of If Beale Street Could Talk) may be. One prospect of filling that position would be an arranged marriage between Meeka and the son of General Izzi (a game Wesley Snipes) of the neighboring Nextdoria. As a believer of true love, Akeem declines that offer leaving Zamunda prone to a hostile takeover from its warmonger rival.
Alas, a long-held secret known by King Jaffe and buried by Akeem’s best friend and advisor Semmi (Arsenio Hall) reveals that Akeem sired an American son during a drug-addled one-night stand with the bar hussy Mary (Leslie Jones, formerly of Saturday Night Live) back in New York before he met Lisa. That 31-year-old man now is Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler of Judas and the Black Messiah), the rightful heir to the throne after his father and ahead of Meeka. When Akeem and Semmi retrieve him and Mary to merge his “aristocratic-blended family,” the ways of Africa and the ways of America collide again, only on the other side of the Atlantic this time around.
LESSON #1: HEAVY IS THE HEAD THAT WEARS THE CROWN— Akeem’s restaurateur father-in-law Cleo (John Amos) drops the Shakespearean riff to describe the problems of family and country that beset Akeem. He is less cruel than his father, which makes him a better man, but a more challenged leader. Lavelle walks right into the next arranged marriage, this time with General Izzi’s rapturous daughter Bopoto (multi-talented performing artist Teyana Taylor) over the natural connection he gains with the common royal groomer Mirembe (newcomer Nomzamo Mbatha). If Akeem were to bargain and broker for the same kingdom-saving betrothals that he himself escaped and rebelled against decades ago, then he would fail as a father in spite of perceived national survival. What’s right for the country isn’t always right for family.
LESSON #2: ESCHEWING ROYALTY FOR REALITY— Calling some of Coming 2 America a duplication of this lesson’s theme from the original film would be more than fair, but that, hijinks and gags aside again, is the core of this loosey-goosey parable since the onset. The ultimatum to “do things differently” is agreeable ground to retread. In the first film, the borough of Queens needed a little high-minded pride from Zamuda and, this time around, the cavalier kingdom needed a little American swagger.
Spending the bulk of its time in the fictional Zamunda was a stylistic boon for the sequel directed by Craig Brewer of Dolemite is My Name and Hustle & Flow. Familiar characters are given splashy new settings, looks, and moves, chiefly provided by kitschy production designer Jefferson Sage (A Simple Favor), Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter (Black Panther), and energetic dance choreographer Fatima Robinson (Dreamgirls). Considering the borderline senior citizen age of many involved, this movie really shakes its ass to be lively and look damn good doing so.
LESSON #3: LIKABLE CHARACTERS GO A LONG WAY— While the superficial finery may shimmer and sparkle, it’s the bright and smiling personalities audiences come to see in Coming 2 America. Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall smooth their own wrinkles while adding the heavy makeup again of a few more to bring back all of their madcap creations that we still quote 33 years later. All of the returning old favorites are here as well as a few surprises. Simply put, likeable characters go a long way and these two films are filled to the fish-of-water gills with them.
The edge of the comedic machete harvesting all the low-hanging fruit planted by the six writers sharing story and screenwriter credit on this sequel is regrettably dulled from the R-rated coarseness of 1988 and its different time and temperament. But zingers still zing, thanks to the likable performers and characters. When they’re having fun, we’re having fun. To call back again to Jackie Wilson, the silly glee of this movie evokes the refrained lyric of “Oh what a feeling to be loved!” That’s all this movie is trying to do and that’s just fine.