Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Black is Beautiful (And Very Funny) in Coming to America

I’d been curious about the Eddie Murphy comedy, Coming to America, ever since I had lunch with the delightful Deborah Nadoolman, She’s a Hollywood costume designer (and now an esteemed costume historian) perhaps best known for giving Indiana Jones a distressed leather jacket and a broad-brimmed hat. She also supplied the Blues Brothers with their hipster threads, and put Michael Jackson in a red bomber jacket for “Thriller.” But her sole Oscar nomination involves 1988’s Coming to America, for which she designed some of the wittiest costumes I’ve ever seen. (It turns out that year’s Oscar for costume design went to Rain Man.)

Deborah is married to John Landis, who directed Coming to America in 1988. Landis had first directed an eager young Eddie Murphy in Trading Places; five years later, with Murphy having leapt into the Hollywood pantheon in Beverly Hills Cop, the relationship between director and star was apparently quite fraught. Some of the tension surrounded the fact that Murphy had dreamed up the film’s story (though a famous legal case involved humorist Art Buchwald’s claim that the origin of the plot came from him).

It hardly surprised me to learn that Eddie Murphy was the driving force behind Coming to America. In this era of political correctness, I suspect no white director or screenwriter could have gotten away with the project, if not for Murphy. The movie involves an African prince, but it’s hardly an attempt to show Africans as either heroically noble or victims of western paternalism and greed. Instead this kingdom is really quite hilarious. The fictional Zamunda is a pastel-colored place with an imposing but benevolent king (James Earl Jones, of course), who rules over fawningly adoring subjects. Prince Akeem, newly 21, is so pampered that he has never brushed his own teeth, tied his own shoes, or washed his own penis. (Voluptuous bathing girls happily perform this duty.) Everywhere he goes, young maidens sprinkle rose petals in his path. And the wife who has been selected for him is a total knockout. (She has been carefully trained to agree with everything he says.)

Naturally, Prince Akeem prefers a girl who loves him for himself. Which is why he and buddy Semmi (Arsenio Hall) travel to New York City to experience real life. Murphy is quite hilarious in his enthusiastic embrace of life in a Queens tenement. Next thing you know, he’s cheerfully mopping floors at McDowell’s, an obvious McDonald’s rip-off run by a very funny John Amos. Some of the movie’s best satiric moments are saved for a party at the home of the nouveau-riche Amos, who decorates his walls with copies of famous paintings (like a version of Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” in which the pretty barmaid has dark African skin). There’s also some fun at the expense of an entrepreneur character who got rich off a greasy Jheri-curl-like hair oil.

I found the eager naïveté of Murphy’s character totally endearing, and he plays off well against Arsenio Hall’s more worldly buddy, who installs neon décor and a hot tub in their spartan cold-water flat, just as Prince Akeem is trying to impress his American girlfriend with his poverty. Murphy and Hall are clearly total hams: they also take on a clutch of other characters including a James Brown-like soul preacher and some codgers hanging around an old-school barber shop. Murphy even gets to impersonate an elderly Jewish man who ends the film with a moldy Yiddish dialect joke. I was totally fooled until the credits. No wonder Rick Baker earned an Oscar nomination for his wizardry with makeup.

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