COMING 2 AMERICA. It probably seems a little silly — and probably is, actually — but I wanted and still want this movie to be great, important even. This won't be the first time but it says something of my age/generation to say Coming to America (1988) was one of the formative pop-cultural experiences of my youth, a movie that seared itself into my consciousness (I am not alone in this), building something indelible and hilarious from a well-worn premise and the sheer performative heat of its then still-rising star. To paraphrase a better wit than I (in this case the cultural commentator Van Lathan), I feel as if I was born knowing the scenes and set-ups and lines of dialogue from that movie, almost as much as any. It is an ineffable document made from the stuff of mainstream American movie comedy and it remains funny — if also the subject of some discussion regarding its explorations, or lack thereof, of class in America, social climbing, the heterogeneity of Black culture and more — to this day.
It could be fairly argued we are all disproportionately impressed and informed by the art and culture of our youth, that what we like when young partially determines what we like when, well, when we're not so young anymore. But I would counter that some of us were lucky enough to start growing up in golden moments of popular art and entertainment. Further, I would suggest the 1980s and 1990s were just such an era for Hollywood comedy. (Obviously this is specious and a semiotician will quickly eviscerate it and me, but let's give it a try). The '70s had become the burial ground for the optimism of the previous decade, a prescient vision of a future defined by drugs and dance music and the lack of fossil fuels — doesn't sound so bad, put that way — but also a present consumed by the absence of unity, the discordant chorus of infinite voices trying to be heard and to self-define. At the same time though, television, a still relatively-new medium, was beginning to mature into a platform for comedy and drama with a different flavor, a different sort of nuance than was previously available. And it was everywhere.
From this cultural cauldron came the 1980s, a lamentable period ubiquitously defined by commentators by its emphasis on avarice and speed. While that decade saw the second wave of salvos against liberalism and, to my mind, true democracy in this country, it also gave rise to an unprecedented comedy boom. Road-dogs prowled the landscape, earning fairly serious coin plying their often dubious trade around the country. This, in turn, spawned an era of accelerated ascendance of stand-up comedians minting money with TV development deals and, just sometimes, movie stardom.
Eddie Murphy, that rarest of talents, was uniquely positioned to become king of all of it. Barely past the second decade of his life, he had already dominated stand-up, TV and movies; there was not, has not and likely will not be anyone like him. He put down roots in a fertile landscape but his career bore incomparable fruit.
And then, as I mentioned in my review of the excellent Dolemite Is My Name (2109), he turned away from the more-challenging, adult-oriented material with which he made his name. In the ongoing analysis, though, it becomes clear that Hollywood began a turning way at the same time. While comedy continued to thrive through the 1990s, it became an admittedly less-sophisticated, simultaneously more-and-less accessible form. Maybe a movie like Coming to America (but is there a movie like it?) could only have really existed when it did.
I have long wished for a return to form for Eddie Murphy, and for the type of comedy that he defined and perfected, lo these decades. Dolemite was a great teaser: an R-rated throwback with style and heart that was still funny. And so the re-teaming of director Craig Brewer with Murphy (as well as much of the original cast), seemed like sunshine breaking through the clouds, at least to me.
While there is certainly something to enjoy in Coming 2 America (Wesley Snipes' turn as the electric-sliding General Izzi is the highlight), it attempts to look back while planting itself in the present so strenuously that it feels more like a tribute than a sequel. It pains me to say it but the most immediate analogy it brought to mind was of Blues Brothers 2000 (1998) to the classic 1980 original — both the work of John Landis, who also directed Coming to America. Coming 2 America is pallid, over-polished, often turgid and not nearly modern enough to really be called a sequel. PG13. 110M. AMAZON PRIME.
John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.