Movies

‘Coming 2 America’ Is A Rare Comedy Sequel That Does Justice To The Original, With Oscar-Worthy Costume Design As The Cherry On Top

Virtually no one does good comedy sequels, especially decades after the fact. Super Troopers, Zoolander, Dumb and Dumber, Ghostbusters, Bill & Ted (sorry) — all tried to get their respective bands back together, and all turned in, to varying degrees, uneven rehashes of old jokes. Of all the people to finally get it right, who would’ve expected it to be Eddie Murphy, the guy who seemingly spent an entire decade doing bad kids movies?

Maybe it helps that Coming To America (1988) wasn’t the world’s funniest movie. Mostly it was charming, didn’t have the reek of desperation that comes from trying too hard, and was funny enough when it had to be. Murphy doesn’t get enough credit for his choice to play Prince Akeem believably. Murphy played an African prince, where virtually anyone else in his situation then and now would have played him as famous-comedian-comedically-playing-African-Prince. Murphy wisely played it straight, letting the humor come naturally from the situations Akeem was in. The funniest part of Eddie Murphy getting hit with an entire vanilla shake was him not reacting to it. Meanwhile, playing all the side characters in heavy make-up gave Murphy an outlet for his inner ham and channeled that energy where it best served the story.

In that way, Coming To America felt a little like a Muppet movie — two sort of straight men on an odyssey through a fantastical world full of wonder and puppets (or at least, actors in so much makeup that they might as well be puppets). Muppet puppeteer Frank Oz even gets a shout-out in the airport scene, when the PA pages “Frank Oznowicz.”

Coming 2 America, this 30+-years-late sequel directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle And Flow) captures that same fantastical odyssey quality beautifully. It’s as much a musical costume party extravaganza as it is movie. It didn’t always make me laugh (though I laughed plenty) but it always made me smile. Above all, everyone seems to be having fun, and not in a needy way. Even when it’s not laugh-out-loud funny Coming 2 America is still fun to look at. I’m not exaggerating when I say that costume designer Ruth E. Carter deserves an (other) Oscar.

In this update, Prince Akeem (Murphy) is living happily in his kingdom of Zamunda, though he has one big problem: his father (played again by the thankfully-still-alive James Earl Jones) is on his deathbed and Akeem, who has sired three daughters, doesn’t have a male heir. Luckily, as related to us by a snaggle-toothed, hilariously outfitted witch doctor played by Arsenio Hall (seriously, this costume is a perfect sight gag and would be worth the price of admission alone, if there was one), it turns out that Akeem sired a bastard child on his original sojourn to Queens — Lavelle Junson, played by Jermaine Fowler, an underachieving 30-year-old who scalps tickets outside Madison Square Garden.

With that, Prince Akeem has to travel to America, bring back his bastard heir and his bastard’s mother and uncle, played by Leslie Jones and Tracy Morgan, and hopefully get his line of succession sorted. All this so he can neutralize a potential geopolitical conflict with his restive neighbors in the kingdom of Nextdooria, led by General Izzi. A charming-but-scary Idi Amin-inspired warlord type played by a perfectly cast Wesley Snipes, General Izzi enters every room with choreographed dance routines and a herald announcing his fanciful self-given titles (Idi Amin himself famously went by “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.”).

Every scene seems to incorporate elaborate, comedic song and dance routines like this and they’re always a joy to watch. Ruth E. Carter won her last Oscar for Black Panther, and both that movie and this one draw heavily on this thoroughly enchanting idea of a mythical, modern yet pre-colonial Africa where beautiful, vividly-attired Black people live sumptuously alongside unspoiled natural wonders, like elephants, zebras, leafy green trees, rolling plains, and roaring rivers. This gloriously realized conception of advanced African abundance is an emphatic rejection of the usual Western view of Africa, as a backward place defined by scarcity and poverty and lack. Carter outfits her Zamundan princesses in brilliantly colored dresses combining nature-inspired patterns with brand logos like Fila and Puma. It’s smart, hip, and, well, kind of believable. Above all Zamunda is a place you’d want to visit.

This is an idea only hinted at in the original Coming To America, but it fits with it perfectly. After all, what was Zamunda if not a pre-Wakanda Wakanda? Watching the original nowadays, it’s striking how much it feels like a showcase for uncompromisingly Black humor, with observational characters like the horny preacher and the garrulous barbers, who were probably sort of in-jokes to Black people, that didn’t try to translate them to or define them through, the lens of white audiences. I didn’t know those people, but I still got it, even as a pre-teen watching Coming To America on VHS for the boobs and cuss words.

It’s always better when you don’t try to explain the joke too much. The passion of the delivery and specificity of the writing are what make it translate, regardless of whether you have a real Randy Watson or Miss Black Awareness Pageant in your own life. (Similarly but in reverse, I imagine Kyle Mooney’s series of Inside SoCal sketches work even if you don’t know the real-life version of all those characters from going to college in San Diego like I do).

It’s true, I do sort of miss the foul-mouthed, nudity-infused R-rated aspects of the original, which were a nice squeeze of lemon against the story’s natural fairytale sweetness. There’s a gender-swapped version of the Royal Bathers scene in this PG-13 sequel that absolutely would’ve benefited from going whole hog and hanging some dong. Bang a gong… hang some dong… get it on…

But overall, there’s very little to complain about in Coming 2 America, a worthy sequel that does justice to the original without trying to recreate everything about it. It’s a winning, maximalist musical extravaganza.

‘Coming 2 America’ hits Amazon Prime this Friday, March 5th. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.

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