Friday, March 12, 2021

Brand Recognition and Sequelitis: Coming 2 America

For those who like silliness laced with social satire, Eddie Murphy’s 1988 hit, Coming to America is hard to beat. As everyone knows by now, it tells the tale of a pampered African prince (from the totally imaginary kingdom of Zamunda) who flies off to Queens, NYC, to find a bride who will love him for himself. The satire encompasses jokes about naïve royal expectations as well as a clear-eyed view of life among African-Americans in a jolly but grubby New York slum. Some sequences still tickle my funny bone: I love the John Amos character, a Black American entrepreneur trying to rip off McDonald’s by copying its signature brands and logos for his own McDowell’s burger joint. (His nouveau-riche digs contain, hilariously, copies of famous Impressionist paintings in which the subjects are transformed by African skin tones.) And I chuckle at the moment when Eddie Murphy’s Prince Akeem takes his new American girlfriend home to his squalid Queens flat, hoping to win sympathy for his pathetic immigrant lifestyle, only to discover that best buddy Semmi (Arsenio Hall) has suddenly transformed the place with neon sculptures and a hot tub. Perhaps most hilarious of all are the flashy costumes (by Oscar-nominee Deborah Nadoolman) that project the self-confidently wacky Zamunda spirit.

 The film came out more than 30 years ago, so why the sudden need to produce a sequel? I’m not sure, though Murphy’s career (he’s now 60) is not as bright as it once was. And we can always use a good laugh. Still, the times they are a-changing, and what seemed fresh and funny in 1988 may feel more strained now. This story’s attempt to live up to current sensibilities (e.g. in the recognition that women too deserve empowerment) is little more than a wink and a nod toward the evolving attitudes of 2021. But my chief problem with the film is that—in the way of most sequels—it is basically a recycling of greatest hits for fans of the original.

 In one respect, Coming 2 America doesn’t falter: the outrageous glad rags designed by Ruth  E. Carter (who made history by winning Oscar recognition for her work on Black Panther) evoke the spirit of the original film, but takes the buoyant garishness of Zamunda’s royal court even further into the stratosphere. And I enjoyed seeing once again the great James Earl Jones, who as King Jaffe Joffer is both an autocrat and a benign presence. His death scene, following the most extravagant of all funerals (he wanted to enjoy it while still living) is among my favorite of the movie’s goofy moments.

 Still, Coming 2 America is mostly a rehash of tropes from the previous movie. There’s a twist on those bathing maidens that’s easy to anticipate, and the geezers from the barbershop are back, with the inevitable (not all that funny) Yiddish shtick from a well-disguised Murphy inserted at the end of the credit sequence, just like in the original. Gags we remember from Coming to America are plugged into the current storyline, which tries for variety in that it’s the previously unknown SON of Eddie Murphy who’s now the naïf trying to figure out where his princely heart is taking him. The bizarre circumstances of this son’s conception will surely leave a bad taste in some mouths, but the movie’s not prepared to get serious about anything that might distract from the desired hilarity. Coming 2 America, in other words, falls into the trap of other sequels to hit films: it wants to give the audience the same thing as before, only different.





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