I'm an artist, a writer, a director, a film critic and occasionally I cook. Here I will be mainly focusing on film critiquing.
Growing up on Eddie
When I was a kid growing up in my family, we were particularly fond of a select number of action/comedy stars that we would be totally committed to watching anything and everything they would come out with.
One of biggest names for my family by far was Eddie Murphy, especially for my dad and me. Recalling back to my early youth way back into the mid to late 90s, I remember nights my dad and I would stay up as late as we could waiting for my sisters and mom to fall asleep. Once the women of the house were passed out, my dad and I would make our way to the big family room with a handful of snacks and our VHS tape recording of Eddie Murphy’s standup classics Raw and Delirious.
We would spend the rest of the night in front of the television’s glow laughing our asses off! Murphy was easily one of our favorite comedians of all time and we made sure to watch as many of his movies as we possibly could too.
The Eddie Murphy Classics
Practically any time an Eddie Murphy classic popped up on TV, we made sure to turn it on; 48 Hrs., Another 48 Hrs., Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop (1,2, & 3), Metro, Life, Boomerang, Doctor Dolittle, The Golden Child, Shrek, The Nutty Professor, and obviously Coming to America. Were they all works of greatness?
No, but we loved Eddie’s charm and energy so much that it was damn near impossible to refuse coming back for more. This man made us laugh, he made us cry, he was electric with every word spoken, and infectious with every smile. So basically my family would watch his entire filmography on repeat without hesitation and zero regrets. We loved his work then and we still love it now to this day. Well, unfortunately with the exception of my father who passed away about five years ago, but he would persist in quoting some of Eddie’s best lines and jokes up until the very end.
Seeing how there’s a new sequel to one of Eddie Murphy’s finest, Coming 2 America, I figured it was only fitting to revisit this 1988 fairytale meeting the streets of New York City, Coming to America.
Once upon a time there was royal kingdom deep in the heart of Africa named Zamunda (not Wakanda). Inside the palace resides an extremely pampered prince longing for true love. In Prince Akeem’s (Eddie Murphy) desire to seek out the perfect wife, he devises a plan to go undercover as a poor working man in the urban jungle of Queens, New York.
One of the most brilliant things about the story is that this is basically a Cinderella story in reverse; rather than the typical “rags to riches” transformation taken by Cinderella to hide her true self, Murphy’s character, Akeem, disguises himself to be a low-level working man in order to find his true love. Taking a concept all too familiar and flipping it on its head, which at the time wasn’t really done much before, but now seems more common place in this particular niche of romantic comedies. What makes this reverse Cinderella tale stand out among the rest is the genuinely sweet hearted nature at the center of its narrative, expressing such optimism from Akeem’s determination to not simply settle for a marriage arranged for him with a woman he does not care about, but to find a woman that he can actually fall in love with for her mind and soul. To me, that’s one of the most endearing motivations for a lead character I’ve ever heard.
Is the story predictable? Sure. When we are introduced to the premise, I will admit that its fairly apparent how the story’s structure will roughly go; prince goes to New York in disguise to find his “Queen” in Queens (cute), prince meets girl who already has a boyfriend, boyfriend turns out to be a d*ck, prince and girl start falling for one another while the prince struggles hiding his true identity, in the third act the prince and girl have to break up because the prince lied to her all along about who he really was, by the end they kiss and makeup and live happily ever after. About as straightforward as one can get in a romantic comedy, but because this movie has such likable characters with an amazing sense of humor that any flaws coming from the script’s predictability is easily forgiven. At the end of the day, it’s all about charm and this film is chock-full of it!
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African Fairytale to Urban Reality
At first glance, I’m sure there have been plenty of people who saw this film’s take on an African royal culture, known as Zamunda, as immediately absurd and poorly represents a realistic view of the country. For instance, the environment and the costumes seen by this fictional population is clearly nothing like what was probably being worn at the time. What those individuals neglect to realize is that is the whole point of Zamunda; to be a fairytale version of African royalty, distancing itself from the realms of our own real world and creating what is practically a Disney kingdom with a strong African inspiration along with other fantastical visual influences. From the luscious set designs to the gorgeously colorful wardrobe crafted by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, director John Landis’s wife. I think the most important element that while Deborah strived for a fantastical take on Africa, she also wanted to make sure she was first and foremost always being respectful to the African culture. In my opinion, she succeeded phenomenally.
It was also obviously very intentional to embrace such a fairytale visual aesthetic in the first act in order to establish a stark contrast from Akeem’s homeland to when he arrives in the winter chilled urban streets of America. As soon as Prince Akeem walks out of the airport, we immediately feel just how different and completely outside of his own familiar element that he’s in now. All of this contrast told visually within a matter of seconds, which I find to be refreshing. To me, this is brilliant style working in benefit to the story rather than attempting to overshadow it.
Eddie Murphy as Prince Akeem/Clarence/Saul/Randy Watson/Kunte Kinte
I would like to take the time out to say that Eddie Murphy is a comedic genius… I know, nothing that hasn’t already said a million times before. But honestly, it still amazes me to this day how even the sheer change in the cadence of his voice can react in the biggest of laughs from me. Hell, Murphy can simply shine his iconic giant grin from ear to ear in a flash and my gut is already busted. There’s a reason the world fell in love with him and his unbelievable talent to make us all laugh; bringing a quick wit along with a totally childish energy that is pure delight.
If there is one slight nitpick I might add about Eddie Murphy’s performances, not to say that he’s ever a bad performer, not at all; however I will say that Murphy doesn’t particularly branch out too often in portraying any characters outside of the traditional ‘Eddie Murphy’ mold. For the most part his roles consist of a wise-cracking smart ass who’s got a big mouth yet is quick on improvising his ways out of hairy situations; i.e. Axel Foely, Reggie Hammond, Billy Ray Valentine, and even Donkey from Shrek. With that being said, Murphy does occasionally break against type and one of the more notable times he has done exactly this is right here as Prince Akeem.
Typically Murphy plays the man who is always trying to be one step ahead of everyone else in the room, but as Prince Akeem we find a more innocent and naïve character who is rather unaware of how the real world works. While Akeem is obviously ignorant of the cold and cynical streets of New York, he’s never helpless as he perseveres with his optimism. This striking contrast between Murphy’s cheerful demeanor against the city’s harsher morality honestly creates some truly fantastic laughs. For example, when Akeem first arrives to a crummy apartment building with dead body chalk outlines on the floor he is bursting in joy as angry neighbors yell at him, “F*ck you” and Akeem responds blissfully unaware of what the term actually means, “Yes, f*ck you too!” Easily one of the funniest moments in the entire picture, but the script is littered with similar solid humor throughout.
Then when we get to the rest of the characters played also by Eddie Murphy, they’re hilarious and some of the most memorable that he’s ever portrayed in any movie of his. Since I was a kid watching these characters banter back and forth, I was laughing nonstop, even though I knew for a fact that they were all played by Eddie the scenes were still funny. I think that has something to do with the editing in each of these scenes between the separate ‘Eddie’ characters being pretty good and keeps the flow of their conversations fairly fluid so I don’t have much time to think about how Eddie Murphy is basically speaking to himself in multiple scenes. Something that Tyler Perry could use a lesson in… among many other filmmaking tips.
Aresnio Hall as Semmi/Morris/Extremely Ugly Girl /Reverend Brown
After all these years I still find it quite perplexing that Arenio Hall never really took up acting as a profession. Occasionally he would take a small role here or there, for the most part though he appeared mainly as himself, yet somehow didn’t take many roles for the big screen. Which is a shame because Arsenio is an absolute treasure in Coming to America and I genuinely wish to see more! He has the perfect chemistry with Eddie Murphy as they make the perfect duo here as Akeem and Semmi. I enjoy them playing off of each other so much that I would have died if they got their own sitcom, they’re just too funny together and their frustrated comradery is undoubtedly one of the things I look forward to seeing most in Coming 2 America!
Arenio Hall’s Semmi is cunning yet goofy, capturing that similar child-like quality that Eddie Murphy embraces so well. Although I have to say that some of the biggest laughs I got from Arsenio was in his eccentric Reverend Brown; to this very day whenever I do a silly impression of a reverend/preacher for my friends, Arsenio’s Reverend Brown is the direct reference I pull from when I want to get a good laugh. He’s cheerfully over-the-top in the best ways and I could probably watch an entire sermon from this character every Sunday for the rest of my life.
Shari Headley as Lisa McDowell
Alright, so we’ve delved plenty into how the comedy and the male leads work well in the picture. However, that’s all for nothing if the romance isn’t believable, no matter how good the rest of the movie is; if the romance fails, the whole production falls apart. Luckily they casted Shari Headley who portrays Lisa McDowell, a bright young woman who wears her heart on her sleeve… something I can certainly relate to. Seriously though, because Headley balances her performance with quiet sincerity and yet a strong independence, we’re able to get a genuine sense of a fleshed out person rather than a forgettable two-dimensional stock love interest.
At no point does the Lisa character ever come across as just “the clueless romantic lead” who only exists to strictly fall in love with our leading man while having nothing else going on in her life. The movie makes sure to paint Lisa as a person with real interests and a mind of her own, which is the whole point of why Akeem crossed the Atlantic to begin with; to find a woman who wouldn’t simply be a doormat for him, but a woman who would excite his mind and his heart as well as his crotch. All jokes aside, Shari is wonderful in the film and retains an adorable onscreen relationship with Eddie throughout the film. Without Shari, I don’t believe Coming to America would be the classic that it is today.
John Amos as Cleo McDowell
Re-watching Coming to America recently, I realized just how underrated John Amos is as Cleo, the father of Lisa. Typically the disapproving/stern father stereotype is a cliché we’ve seen all too many times and seems to mainly be there to complicate things between our romantic couple and nothing more. Here though, John brings in a personality all his own that I couldn’t help from falling for his funny as hell performance. Firing on all cylinders as a restaurateur obviously ripping off the McDonald’s brand with his own ‘McDowell’s’ fast-food joint, which is hysterical in itself seeing how hard this man is trying to loophole any copyright infringements from McDonald’s. Then he’s the concerned parent who just wants to make sure his daughters are taken care of when the time may come where he’s not around anymore. Only to become a bumbling dork running around and desperately kissing King James Earl Jones’s ass in an attempt to get in good with royalty. This man is a blast to watch from start to finish; whether he’s demeaning Akeem and Semmi with dreadfully mundane tasks or just casually calling James Earl Jones “King” on the phone, I’m in tears from laughter every time. I couldn’t be happier to see that he’s also returning for Coming 2 America!
Samuel L. Jackson & Cuba Gooding Jr.
Not much to say, I just love the fact that these two dudes so happened to be briefly featured here early in their careers before they truly made it big as household names. And yes, Jackson does in fact drop a couple good F-bombs and they are beautiful to hear.
Big Budget Comedy
During the wildly impressive grand scale opening shot flying over the jungles of Africa and following into the entire first act taking place in Zamunda, there was something I truly admired about watching this movie again, which was the prospect of seeing such a significant budget being thrown into a comedy. By today’s standards I suppose 39 million dollars isn’t so preposterous anymore to toss around in Hollywood, but back in the 1980s this was quite the big number for a relatively straightforward comedy flick starring Eddie Murphy. An element that I find myself sorely missing nowadays seeing this level of ambition in a production for a goofy love story. I loved witnessing the gorgeous sets, the African inspired wardrobes, the intricately crafted miniatures, the beautifully designed matte paintings, the highly energetic dance choreography performed by dozens in one giant palace room, and even watching real animals like elephants and zebras running around alongside our actors was exciting and is something we honestly don’t see much of anymore. Especially with the lazy inclusion of CGI taking the place of practically executed effects and animal training nowadays. This was a little time capsule of filmmaking that I yearn for to return.
Improv While Sticking to the Script
If there is something that pains me about modern comedies, it is that the cast and crew don’t seem to know how to integrate when the actors improvise their lines alongside the written word from the original script; resulting in needlessly elongated scenes containing actors spouting out nonsense for several minutes before we can finally move onto the next scene where it happens all over again. Back in the 80s with comedy classics such as Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, and Coming to America, writers and directors knew exactly how much freedom to give their actors while still ensuring the integrity of the narrative structure. While Eddie, Arsenio, and even John Amos improvised a number of their scenes, director John Landis always managed to know when the adlibbing was right and when it needed to be cut.
Unfortunately nowadays, editors will leave in several minutes worth of actors adlibbing through mumbled jokes or pop culture references that pertain nothing to the plot in a desperate attempt to pad out their runtimes. Resulting normally in an excruciatingly annoying experience watching an onslaught of scenes refusing to end long after they clearly already should have. One of my fears about the upcoming sequel is if they will go with a more modern route with the comedy and let actors adlib too much without cutting out the excess fat or if it will take a more classic approach with allowing their stars freedom, but still knowing when to cut and direct their conversations in order to benefit the story. Fingers crossed for the latter!
A Couple of In-Jokes
Days after last viewing the movie and I feel as though I could hum every note from the musical score, especially the commercial jingle made up for the ‘Soul Glo’ Jheri curl hairspray ads which will definitely remain wedged in my skull for the foreseeable future. The score itself has such a fun and cool blend of tribal influences, urban beats and classical riffs that weave seamlessly throughout the flick. Another aspect about filmmaking of the 1980s when even comedies can have memorable music that sticks with the audience longer than a few seconds after the screening.