Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 4th, 2021
Coming 2 America (Craig Brewer, 2021) 2 out of 4 stars.
Coming to America was released in 1988 and it can boggle the mind to process just how young its star, Eddie Murphy, still was at that time. Born in 1961, he rose to meteoric fame in the early 1980s thanks to the combination of his tenure at Saturday Night Live, several well-received films (including 48 Hrs., Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop) and his down-and-dirty standup routines (laced with homophobia, alas). If you were a kid in that era, as was I, he may very well have been your comedy idol. Though Coming to America was hardly groundbreaking, its tale of an African prince named Akeem who leaves his native Zamunda to visit New York City (Queens, specifically) in search of a wife nevertheless held enough interest and jokes to bear watching. Beyond Akeem, Murphy played a number of incidental characters, showcasing his broad talent as comic performer.
Now, just about 33 years later, we are treated to a sequel, Coming 2 America. Given that the original was far from a masterpiece, I went in with low expectations. Even so, I was disappointed. Directed by Craig Brewer (Dolemite Is My Name), the movie brings back all of the original cast, adding Wesley Snipes (Cut Throat City) as the ruler of a neighboring country called Nextdooria, plus Jermaine Fowler (Buffaloed), Leslie Jones (Ghostbusters), Kiki Layne (The Old Guard) and Tracy Morgan (What Men Want), among others. After 30 years of marriage, Akeem and his American bride, Lisa (Shari Headley) now have three daughters, the oldest of whom, Meeka (Layne), assumes that she is next in line as heir apparent, especially once King Jaffe (James Earl Jones) passes. But Zamundan law dictates that only a son can take the throne, and so when Akeem learns that he may have fathered one years ago on his first visit to the United States (before meeting Lisa), he heads back to Queens to find him.
There, he finds that not-quite-so-young man (who has just turned 30), Lavelle (Fowler), and invites him, his mother and eventually their entre entourage back to Zamunda for training on how to be a prince. Waiting in the wings is General Izzi (Snipes), whose hopes for an alliance with the more prosperous Zamunda rest on the new arrival marrying his daughter Bopoto (Teyana Taylor). Meanwhile, the women of Akeem’s family look on, aghast, as he declines to be the reformer he always claimed he would be, accepting tradition and bypassing his eldest “legitimate” child because she is of the wrong sex. The stage is set not only for comedic shenanigans but for a strong feminist narrative.
There are certainly moments that work. Murphy, though not the manic presence he once was, still has fine timing. Arsenio Hall, returning as sidekick Semmi, offers adequate support, though he shines more brightly in his smaller incidental roles (almost unrecognizable under tons of makeup). Jones (Leslie, that is) and Morgan play the usual versions of their personas, and if one likes that, then they deliver. Both Layne and Fowler invest real heart into their performances, adding gravitas to the proceedings. And then there is Snipes who, as he did in Dolemite Is My Name, brings the weirdness, which is always welcome.
Unfortunately, much of the humor feels like it never left the 1980s, grounding us in a now-archaic worldview, which is not surprising given that screenwriters Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield also wrote the original film, though they are here joined by Kenya Barris, showrunner of Black-ish (and more). Yes, there is an important shift forward with Meeka’s dramatic arc, but then there is also a painful joke poking fun at the notion of gender transition. There is also very little examination of the power dynamics within and between African nations of different means, which wouldn’t matter if the plot didn’t hang on that very difference, given that Nextdooria suffers while Zamunda thrives. And how exactly does Zamunda thrive and why do we celebrate such clearly authoritarian rule? Yes, it’s a fantasy, and meant to be a comic one, at that, but one kind of modernizing (Meeka) raises the stakes, demanding more. Laugh all you want, but some things just aren’t funny.