Coming 2 America can't quite imagine the cultural collision its 1980s predecessor served

Anytime a ripe satirical opportunity comes into view, Coming 2 America runs in the other direction.

The New York Times March 05, 2021 13:52:05 IST
Coming 2 America can't quite imagine the cultural collision its 1980s predecessor served

Still from Coming 2 America. YouTube

Breaking away from a lavish palace party meant to celebrate his engagement, Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler), the newly minted crown prince of Zamunda, complains about the state of Hollywood filmmaking. He never says what kinds of movies he does like, but he is vocal in his disdain for superhero spectacles and “sequels that nobody asked for.” Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha), his royal groomer and love interest, disagrees. Zamundan cinema is not so great, she says, and some of those sequels are not so bad.

Their conversation is one of several meta-jokes scattered throughout Coming 2 America, a genial, mostly inoffensive, sometimes quite funny sequel to a beloved comedy from way back in the 1980s. Coming to America — the original, directed by John Landis — starred Eddie Murphy as Crown Prince Akeem, who traveled to the royally named borough of Queens, New York, to sow his wild oats, accompanied by Arsenio Hall as his aide-de-camp and comic foil, Semmi.

If you remember that movie — it holds up pretty well despite a few bits that may chafe against present-day sensitivities — you will recall that the prince fell in love with a New Yorker named Lisa (Shari Headley), whose father (John Amos) owned a fast-food restaurant called McDowell’s. If you have not seen or cannot quite recall Coming to America, the relevant background is helpfully supplied here, along with some new information. Back then, it seems, there was an oat that got away — a not-even-one-night stand with Mary Junson (Leslie Jones) that resulted in Lavelle.

Akeem, who has three daughters with Lisa, learns of his son’s existence during an eventful first act as he and his queen celebrate their 30th anniversary and bid farewell to King Jaffe (James Earl Jones). Complicating factors include threats from General Izzi (Wesley Snipes), the bellicose ruler of the neighboring country of Nexdoria, and the patriarchal laws of Zamunda, which stipulate that the occupant of the throne must be male. Lavelle, a college dropout and part-time ticket scalper with some of his father’s good-hearted charm, looks like the solution to the kingdom’s problems.

But of course the laws of comedy require that further problems ensue, and the many-authored script supplies plenty. Akeem and Semmi return to New York for what feels like a too-brief visit. The fish-out-of-water delights of Coming to America could hardly be repeated, but that film's comic view of the US from the perspective of a naive African aristocrat could have used a more energetic updating. It is nice to catch up with some of the secondary comic characters — the barbershop guys played by Hall and Murphy in old-age prosthetics, most especially.

But anytime a ripe satirical opportunity comes into view, Coming 2 America runs in the other direction.

But maybe satire is not really the point. It is not hard, at the moment, to find comedy with a sharper edge, or a tougher view of American dysfunction. Coming 2 America — not unlike Brewer and Murphy’s previous collaboration, Dolemite Is My Name — is a sweet and silly celebration of Black popular culture, with a sincere respect for history and a welcoming regard for the new generation. (Speaking of Dolemite Is My Name, this movie provides further testimony to the absolute comic genius of Snipes.)

Gladys Knight, En Vogue, and Salt N Pepa show up (as themselves, in fine vocal form), and so does KiKi Layne, a rising star (see If Beale Street Could Talk) who plays Meeka, Akeem’s oldest daughter. Generational conflict may drive the story, but the vibe is of an all-ages party, a blended family reunion with Tracy Morgan as the wacky uncle.

Still, like Lavelle and Mirembe at the big bash, you might be tempted to wander off in the long, soft middle, when the music and jokes are put on hold in the interests of a creaky, corny, self-helpy plot. It takes Coming 2 America three-quarters of its running time to arrive at the place where Coming to America started: the rejection of an arranged marriage in favour of the search for a soul mate. The feminist gestures at the end have an obligatory, let-us-all-nod-our-heads-in-unison feeling that a more daring movie, or one with a stronger idea of what it wanted to be, would not have needed. Lavelle’s cynicism about sequels is not challenged very effectively, I am afraid.

I do have one more thing to say, though, which may in itself be a sufficient recommendation, and that is: Ruth E Carter. One of the all-time great costume designers, she won an Oscar for Black Panther, and could win another one just for Gen Izzi’s warlord couture. (Do not skip the credits, or you will miss him in a kilt.) The art of Coming 2 America resides most fully in the costumes, which are at once travesties of globalist modern style and inspired tributes to it as well as fully realised examples of a cultural collision that the movie itself cannot quite imagine.

Coming 2 America is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

A.O. Scott c.2021 The New York Times Company

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