Coming to America is a loosely based twist on The Prince and the Pauper novel by Mark Twain. The film is set in the fictional African country of Zamunda. Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) is set to marry his young bride in an arranged marriage, but he gets cold feet. His father, King Jaffee Joffer (James Earl Jones), agrees to let Akeem travel to America to sow his royal oats for 40 days. Akeem’s long-term servant and confidant Semmi (Arsenio Hall) accompanies him on his journey. Semmi assumes they will have, “Forty days of fornication,” but Akeem really wants to find a beautiful and intelligent bride. The two look at a map of New York and the city of Queens pops out at them. Having no idea about America, the two don’t realize that Queens’, especially in 1988, was not a place where one would want to vacation. When this film was shot it represented New York realness, right down to the homeless standing around flaming garbage cans. One stock footage shot of a British Airways Concorde jet later and Akeem and Semmi arrive at the airport, wearing dead animal furs and carrying over 20 pieces of Louis Vuitton luggage.
The outside their element gags continue, as the prince and his servant rent a rat infested apartment from a slumlord and find jobs at a local McDonald’s knock-off called McDowell’s. After night after night combing through every bar and nightclub in Queens trying to find Akeem’s future wife, the men stumble on a Black Awareness Beauty Pageant and Akeem finally spots his future Queen. Like most romantic comedies, the woman of his affection, Lisa McDowell (Shari Headly), is uninterested at first and Akeem must work extra hard to win her love, all while hiding the fact that he is a wealthy prince from Africa.
What Coming to America gets right is its constant humor. It is a strange, but winning, blend of dialogue peppered with constant punch-lines, Saturday Night Live (SNL) style skits, and Airplane-type absurdist comedy, through the use of inanimate objects given full-camera shot attention. Whether it’s King Jaffe Joffer telling his son, Prince Akeem, “I’ve always assumed you have sex with your bathers. I know I do.”, Eddie Murphy perfecting his African accent, or Mr. Cleo McDowell (John Amos) covertly reading a McDonald’s Operations Manual they all garner steady laughs.
The film is also the first time where both Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall play more than one character. Murphy plays an older black barber as well as an older Jewish white barber. Hall too plays a barber, and their voices are the only thing that gives them away. Hall also plays an Al Sharpton-type Reverend and Murphy plays a James Brown-type singer at the Black Awareness Beauty Pageant. After seeing Hall crack jokes in last season’s Celebrity Apprentice, at the expense of Aubrey O’Day (don’t judge my TV viewing habits), I remembered he is funny, but I actually was impressed at his acting abilities. I expected to hate him in this film, but I couldn’t find anything wrong with his performance.
There is a great scene that doesn’t have much to do with the plot, except that it shows Lisa that Akeem is brave because he foils an attempted robbery of the McDowell’s restaurant. The scene stands out because it showcases Samuel L. Jackson as the hold-up man and Jackson is in full Pulp Fiction style glory. He delivers his F-bombs like no other actor can and I only wish he appeared in a couple more scenes.
Coming to America was directed by John Landis. Landis had a real knack for directing comedies and he first rose to fame after directing Animal House. He later pulled other actors from SNL, like Chevy Chase and Dan Akroyd, and directed them in Spies Like Us. He also first teamed with Eddie Murphy, prior to this film, in Trading Places. Anyone who has seen Trading Places will appreciate the scene in this film in which Akeem gives a bum on the street a wad of cash. After Akeem walks away, the bum looks at the money and wakes up his passed out buddy. The two men happen to be Randolph and Mortimer Duke, the same two men who Murhpy’s character, Billy Ray Valentine, bankrupted in Trading Places. I have to admit I get all hot under the collar when one film makes a secretive reference to a prior film. That’s when we film nerds feel like we are in a secret society and that the directors are talking right to us. It’s the little things that turn us on!
Despite everything that Landis gets right in this film and the entertaining performances by Murphy and Hall, Coming to America still succumbs to the cheesy predictable formulaic climax and ending that every single romantic comedy falls prey to. Let’s face it: The marketing execs at Paramount know what works and they aren’t going to take a crazy risk and not deliver an ending where boy gets girl in the end. That would be….GASP, an Indie film. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Or Landis could have been braver, like Silver Linings Playbook director David O. Russell, and delivered the happy ending (not that kind, get your head out of the gutter), but the rest of the film is so superb we forgive any closing barfiness. Although, Russell’s film came over twenty years later and we would have to jump in a time machine to fix Landis’ film. Wait, then we’d be in Back to the Future. Shit, now I’m confused.
Coming to America is a great way to see one of America’s best comedic talents, Eddie Murphy, do his thing in his prime. This was before he picked up that hooker in West Hollywood and made such Oscar-winning flicks as The Nutty Professor.
Take a Drink: every time Eddie Murphy flashes his famous grin.
Take a Drink: every time there’s a reference to Soul Glo.
Do a Shot: every time you see Cuba Gooding, Jr. on-screen.
Shotgun a Beer: if you spot the 1980s-inspired Garfield suction cup stuffed animal.