To paraphrase Lavelle Junson, people don’t want to see a sequel to an old movie from 30 years ago that no one asked for. Yet, other than standard-issue Disney/Marvel/DC and the occasional sleeper indie hit, we’ve been fed a steady cinematic diet of sequels and reboots to properties from the Reagan-Bush era.
“Coming 2 America” is merely the latest entry in the never-ending lineup of stale nostalgia bait. Although occasionally amusing, like its soulless siblings, the follow-up to the endearing 1988 comedy is shallow, tired, and ultimately lacking; typical of the entertainment industry’s output over the past ten years. Yet we just can’t get enough of it.
Junson’s observation may be astute but, of course, we know it’s completely wrong. A ravenous market for 1980s and ‘90s reboots and sequels still exists, and even those of us who should know better get foolishly sucked in. We grew up with these characters, so it’s only natural to crave fresh and interesting stories, watch them grow, and have them overcome new challenges.
The original “Coming to America” features a young Prince Akeem Joffer (Eddie Murphy) who is arranged to be married in the exotically fictional African kingdom of Zamunda. Frustrated with his predetermined and pampered life, he breaks off the engagement to seek true love and experience a “normal life” in America (where else but Queens, N.Y.) with his mischievous pal Semmi (Arsenio Hall).
Overcoming a hilarious socio-economic culture shock, they meet a motley crew of characters along the way as Akeem courts Lisa (Shari Headley), the daughter of a fast-food entrepreneur who’s having relationship problems of her own with a boyfriend who’s set to inherit a fortune from a line of “Soul Glo” urban hair care products.
Although initially met with a lukewarm reception, “Coming to America” built a loyal following over the years with its unique brand of humor, interesting characters (most of whom are played by Murphy and Hall), and humble urban settings. Since most of the cast was set to return, the announcement of a sequel was somewhat promising. More romantic, cross-cultural misadventures? A new generation of Zamundans and a secret heir to the throne? The potential was there, especially for us ‘80s kids.
Instead, we get a slapdash sequel with a loosely interconnected set of references to the original material, a razor-thin (and nonsensical) plot, all-too-familiar tropes, and stunted characters that wind up where they ended up in the last movie.
Eddie Murphy’s Prince Akeem discovers that while in America back in ’88, he was drugged and raped by Leslie Jones’s Mary Junson, which produced a son, Lavelle. Yes, date rape is the inciting incident, but this proves to be more of a comedic beat than a felonious assault.
Despite him having three able daughters, only a male heir can assume the throne. With a ruthless General Izzi vying for Zamunda’s riches, Akeem is compelled to bring his illegitimate son back to the kingdom and install him as a prince to curb Izzi’s fashionable assassins. To keep the peace, the Prince of Zamunda must wed the daughter of General Izzi in an arranged marriage. Sound familiar?
But what about finding your one true love and forging your own way? Have you forgotten who you are, Simb—I mean, Prince Akeem?
In a slightly effective spin on the original’s fish-out-of-water trope, there are several grrlpower moments in the third act, which reaffirm that indeed, women can be strong capable leaders too. Beyond that, we get little else other than barely warmed-over leftovers from a McDowell’s Big Mick meal.
They dig up just about everyone from the first movie, from the rapping Peaches and Sugar Cube twins to an ageless Shari Headley, who returns to play Lisa. Noticeably and sorely missing are Eriq La Salle’s Darryl and the hilarious Soul Glo jingle that made his family rich. Everyone and everything else falls in line with nearly identical story beats and jokes that barely land.
The comedy element lacks the original’s Soul Glo moment, as well as the social satire that made the property relevant and enduring. The Soul Glo commercial and its amazing musical accompaniment are some of the most laugh-out-loud moments of ‘80s cinema.
The “Black Awareness” grifting operation and Queens’s socio-economic power structure that mirrored Zamundan society are replaced with cheap references and bland social justice messaging. Without strong gags or social commentary — even as mild as it was back then — movies like this quickly fade from memory with very few reasons to keep it on your watch list.
Watching these once-charming royals have a bit of fun while going through the motions reminds us once again how creatively bankrupt our own Kings and Queens of Tinseltown truly are. Honestly, if a property like “Coming to America” needs to be revived, at least give it some life and do it justice. What was needed was an exploration of their world through a modern lens — indeed, we’re starving for satire that pokes at our conventions and communities.
Yet, for fear of the social media mob, not only won’t Hollywood recreate the brand of satire that made “Coming to America” such a success, it’s becoming clear that they simply can’t. The writers, producers, and production companies are so removed from mainstream society that they’re no longer able to meaningfully connect to their targeted audience. They know what worked before, so they regurgitate the same themes and narratives, but they fail to understand why they worked and what would work better for today’s movie-going public.
The beauty of the original “Coming to America” was its ability to cross racial, social, and economic lines delivering a familiar, crowd-pleasing story and featuring likable characters doing their best in an authentic, lived-in environment. Much of “Coming 2 America,” however, takes place in a fictional world, inside a palace, with aging talents doing more to entertain each other than entertaining us, the people. Perhaps this is the real social satire that this movie, and many others like it, unintentionally achieve.
If you’re looking for a Joffer family reunion, you won’t be disappointed, but you’ll probably be underwhelmed. There are a few bright spots for sure, like Wesley Snipes’s bizarrely wonderful performance and Jermaine Fowler admirably keeping up with the veteran cast.
Still, “Coming 2 America” isn’t a terrible film. It’s a passable distraction as we wait for theaters to open up again and studios to stop dragging their feet. Like good and loyal subjects, we’ll gobble up the next reboot too.