Do not confuse Coming To America (1988) with Coming 2 America. I have not seen the sequel yet, though I might do something special for it in the near future. Stay tuned. However, you would think they might have come up with a less confusing title for the follow-up. Oh well. Anyway, it is nice to Eddie Murphy back in movies. After Coming To America, he seems to have gotten himself into a series of increasingly unfunny films, which is sad for such a comedic genius. I blame The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002). I guess he did realize some success by voicing the Donkey in the Shrek franchise, but otherwise I feel like he has not gotten a great deal of attention in the twenty-first century. It is a shame, too, because Coming To America is a sneaky good movie.
Still, there is nothing completely original about Coming To America. If you are familiar with Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, then you get the gist. If not, then what you need to know is that Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) is turning twenty-one. According to tradition in the fictional African country of Zamunda (think Wakanda from the Marvel Cinematic Universe), when the heir to the throne reaches this age he must marry. Akeem, though, is not exactly one for doing things the way they have always been done. This is noticeable in a variety of ways, particularly when he meets the woman with whom his marriage has been arranged. He wants somebody who can think for herself, but all she wants is whatever he wants. Dissatisfied, he requests that his father, King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones), allow him to travel around the world. The king believes his son is going out to “sow his royal oats,” an unfortunate expression. Yet, what Akeem really wants is to find true love with a woman worthy of an exalted position. After a coin flip decides for New York against Los Angeles, he and his attendant, Semmi (Arsenio Hall), discover the burrough of Queens and think it good place to find a royal consort. Once there, they exchange the trappings of wealth for the meanest circumstances they can obtain. They also take up menial jobs at the hilarious McDonald’s ripoff called McDowell’s. This is all part of Akeem’s attempt to attract somebody who wants him for who he is rather than as a member of royalty. In the course of his labors he befriends the daughter of Cleo McDowell (John Amos), the restaurant’s owner, Lisa (Shari Headley). She is everything he is looking for, but she already has a boyfriend. Her boyfriend is Darryl Jenks, the son of the hair product empire known as Soul Glo, and his well-to-do family is somebody Cleo is eager to see her daughter marry into. What opens the door for Akeem is when Cleo announces an engagement between Lisa and Darryl without consulting her daughter. She begins spending more time with Akeem, and she falls in love with him despite the fact that he is, by all appearances, a pauper. What almost ruins everything is the appearance of King Joffer, who comes to New York when a spoiled Semmi sends back to Zamunda for a million dollars after spending all the money they brought with them. In the process of tracking down his son, Lisa learns Akeem’s true identity and feels lied to with this sudden revelation. Defeated, Akeem returns to Zamunda to submit to his prearrange wedding. Yet, all is not lost as is revealed on the altar that it is Lisa under the veil. And they seemingly live happily ever after, assuming Coming 2 America does not spoil everything.
One thing not covered in the above summary of Coming To America are the various other bit parts played by Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall. They donned various wigs, make-up, and costumes and assumed the extra roles of people you typically see in films that are needed to fill out a movie. The fact that they could construct these scenes with just themselves and make all blend seamlessly together is a testament to their talent and the direction behind the camera. It also allowed for Murphy and Hall to let loose a little as their main characters were more subdued. In all, it demonstrated a range for each that is remarkable. What is also interesting is how well this movie holds up. In previous reviews, like yesterday’s of What About Bob? (1991), I discussed how so many films from previous decades do not work in a modern context. You can point to changing sensibilities, or the cancel culture, but a lot of times a director or a writer is able to capture something that only makes sense at that time. It is understandable. There is nothing wrong with giving people what they want, usually. What makes Coming To America timeless is that while it is quite 1980s in its look, it deals with issues that have appealed to people for centuries. For all its jokes and humorous moments, it is a love story, and a good one to boot.
Another thing that should be commended about Coming to America is Akeem’s generous spirit. It is more than simply giving a couple homeless guys thousands of dollars, though that is incredible. It is more than letting the down and out denizens of Queens steal their luggage upon their arrival at their temporary home. Where Akeem’s true character shines is in his willingness to give up his inheritance for Lisa. The Bible is full of passages talking about how true love is a gift beyond price. There has only been one person, Jesus, who has demonstrated perfect love in His laying down His life to be crucified for our sins. Nonetheless, Akeem’s willingness to sacrifice wealth and title for such a worthy person for his affections is approaching that level. It is a Christian principle to shun material possessions for things that truly matter, like love. When you are willing to forsake such things, the Bible tells us that the reward will be great. Look up the word altruism some time. Jesus’ passion defined it, but people like Akeem also practice it.
As much as I think Coming to America is a good movie, it is not without some moments that earned it its R rating. Early on there is a bathing scene where Akeem his attended by a few topless women, one of which cleans his private parts. There is also foul language, though it is handled in a comedic way at first as Akeem is not used to hearing the “F” word and thinks it a term of endearment. Still, Akeem and Lisa practice restraint when they have the opportunity to have sex, and the other material just mentioned is brief. If you are wanting to watch Coming 2 America, it might be helpful to see its solid predecessor.