It’s hard to imagine a comedy like “Coming to America” getting made today, which means that only Eddie Murphy could resurrect it. Anyone unfamiliar with that movie’s legacy — and, 33 years on, those people are really missing out — will find “Coming 2 America,” the long-awaited followup, amusing in parts. Those who adore the original, however, will feel like they’ve been revisited by an old friend, or perhaps the dirty uncle, whose jokes are a bit frayed but still pointed enough. Produced at a time when big, brash studio comedies rarely crack the zeitgeist, “Coming 2 America” works far better than the market standard, in part because it does right by its roots.
Released in 1988 at the height of Murphy’s popularity, “Coming to America” blended satire and fairy tale romance through the sheer power of Murphy’s screen presence. In director John Landis’ hands, the absurdist plight of the African prince from the fictional Zamunda, who bucks tradition by falling in love with an American woman he meets to avoid his arranged marriage back home, felt like the authentic tale of a man coming to terms with his true self. The romantic union between Prince Akeem Joffer and Lisa from Queens (Shari Headley) provided a boisterous foundation for probing dueling notions of Black identity that, like Murphy’s long-dormant standup, merged outrageous comedic stereotypes with a genuine soul-searching quest.
“Coming 2 America” does that as well, in ways almost exclusively indebted to the appeal of the original. Largely predicated on fan service even as it introduces some next-gen faces, the sequel embraces the same appeal of the original, though it rhymes its best gags with such precision that it rarely finds its own tune. Capably directed by Murphy’s “Dolemite Is My Name” director Craig Brewer with a lively mix of dance numbers, a dense cameo list, and a neat set of intergenerational conflicts, “Coming 2 America” derives most of its entertainment value from winking to the original.
That’s a curious proposition given that “Coming to America” interrogated depictions of Africa and the African diaspora in popular culture, while “Coming 2 America” treats these characters more like real people. Still, it’s a blast to watch Akeem, now the happy father to three young girls, wander his kingdom in the opening moments as if nothing has really changed over the years. Since his father King Jaffe (James Earl Jones, whose every second of screen time feels like some sort of holy communion) still oversees the kingdom, Akeem has settled into his palatial routine: He’s still hanging around with best pal Semmi (Arsenio Hall, the same kooky slapstick nut) and relishing the ease of life with Lisa when King Jaffe complicates matters: He’s going to die soon, and while Akeem thinks he has no male heirs, it turns out he actually sowed his oats in Queens during a late-night pre-Lisa excursion that yielded him a son.
The introduction of Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), Akeem’s “bastard offspring” who was raised by single mom Mary (Leslie Jones) back in Queens, marks the ultimate passing of the baton: With Jaffe out of the picture and Akeem suddenly ruling his kingdom, he’s pressured to track down his unexpected kid to bring him into the kingdom before it’s overtaken by General Izzi (a stone-faced Wesley Snipes, who has never given such a riotous kind of deadpan performance), the insurgent leader of Nextdoria. (In one of many clever throwbacks, General Izzi is the resentful brother of the woman Akeem declined to marry in the last movie; decades later, she’s still barking like a dog from the command he gave her to prove her pointless servitude.)
The clock is ticking as Akeem and Semmi return to their old stomping grounds for a hilarious mismatch: It’s quickly clear that Lavelle, a scalper frustrated by the inherent racism of the American workforce, doesn’t exactly come across as regal material. Hearing about his legacy in a cramped Queens apartment surrounded by his awestruck mom and her bumbling brother (an ever-combustible Tracy Morgan), Lavelle embraces the opportunity as if he’s won the lottery.
Which, of course, he has: While Akeem’s legitimate children have spent their lives dreaming of the throne, the sudden arrival of this eager newcomer leads to an obvious reckoning as the movie attempts a modest feminist twist. Princess Meeka (KiKi Layne, who plays it straight) casts a stern look at the giddy Lavelle from the moment he arrives, eventually taking on the begrudging role of his mentor as he’s forced to undergo a series of inane trials. It would spoil the superficial fun to detail them all, but needless to say, this is where “Coming 2 America” sags into formula on several fronts: Fowler is an amusing figure of uncertainty as he navigates the character’s sense of cultural displacement, while Brewer and the screenwriters keep the gags rolling along, and the character’s sudden interest in a royal groomer (Nomzamo Mbatha) allows for a convenient new complication right on schedule.
Fowler, a comedian best known for a handful of TV credits, may not have the same voluminous screen presence as Murphy — but that seems to have happened by design: Ultimately, this is still Murphy’s show, with Hall as the palpable side dish. In a wry early stunt that utilizes footage from the original, Akeem and Semmi are resurrected with the best use of de-aging this side of “The Irishman” to put the original story in fresh context, but no amount of 21st century technology can best the resurrection of their barbershop characters. Once again, Clarence, Morris, and Sweets are played by the two actors under mounds of makeup as if no time has passed at all. It’s a wonder that this trio never spawned their own spin-off: As they banter about Obama, sexual politics, and whatever other inane assertions randomly fall out of their mouths, the two Black raconteurs and their guttural Jewish pal seem as if they never left the small room where we last saw them in 1988.
There’s more fun to be found in Hall resurrecting his naughty preacher character, refurbished punchlines about the inherent erotic nature of royal bathers, and the continuing success of McDonald’s knock-off McDowell’s, now a Zamundan franchise overseen by the sagacious John Amos. “Coming 2 America” often risks dissolving into an assemblage of reference points, but Murphy’s Akeem provides just enough pathos to fuse the narrative together. Once a symbol of change for his nation, he’s now grappling with a midlife crisis, and the sense that his once-progressive nature may have calcified into traditionalism.
That revelation drifts in and out of the plot, but actually resonates with something close to emotional authenticity when Lisa finally puts him in his place. (The decision to bring back Jackie Wilson’s “To Be Loved,” the song that accompanied their first date in the original, works wonders.) Murphy’s ability to unleash an awkward grin at the most inopportune moments hasn’t lost its appeal, but as “Dolemite” proved, neither has his performative substance: In spite of the surrounding lunacy, Akeem’s struggle is real.
Still, who is this movie kidding? “Coming 2 America” unfurls as a giant party all too eager to celebrate its very existence at every turn, while not taking any of its story beats too seriously. The zippy song-and-dance numbers, replete with cameos galore, have a tendency to overwhelm the movie’s narrative momentum. But when they work, the movie operates on its own surreal wavelength. Early on, the arrival of a certain famous baritone voice, who narrates a very ridiculous funeral, shows just how much the movie has invested in its jokey internal logic. It’s a great, wondrous eruption of stupidity still somehow grounded in the rules of its homegrown universe.
As a whole, “Coming 2 America” turns on the appeal of innumerable asides, some funnier than others, as it rushes through countless subplots. The script, credited to original “Coming to America” writers David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein along with “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris, would hardly offer much appeal without the constant quest for amusing one-liners: From Tracy Morgan whispering “Don’t use white voice” before his character’s nephew goes on a job interview to one of Akeem’s daughters explaining why “on fleek” has gone out of style, and Jones loudly comparing their messy family dynamic to the Kardashians, the movie’s never too far from another ephemeral punchline.
Clocking in at nearly two hours, “Coming 2 America” runs on fumes during its busy last act, as if unwilling to let the party end. Its prolonged finale suggests that nobody wanted to let that happen. If it’s too much of a good thing, that may be the essential price to pay for Murphy to keep his comeback efforts rolling along. Brash, lovable, and doused in irony at every turn, his outsized persona remains a singular figure in American comedy, evidently still capable of dominating the screen. “Coming 2 America” doesn’t have to be perfect to succeed at putting him centerstage. All hail the King.
“Coming 2 America” is available on Amazon Prime starting Friday, March 5.