Released in 1988, “Coming to America” is probably the most congenial comedy in Eddie Murphy’s filmography. The story of a royal prince from the fictional African country of Zamunda who looks for a queen in — where else? — Queens, N.Y., the movie is as broad as a barn and twice as sweet-natured. You’d have every expectation that a sequel arriving 33 years late to the party would be a bust.
It’s a pleasure to report, then, that “Coming 2 America” lands on Amazon Prime largely in possession of the first film’s better qualities. It’s silly of mind and open of heart, full of visual and sonic eye candy while telling a predictable story with pleasurable generosity. The laughs are pitched right over the plate with the skill and enjoyment of a team of vaudeville pros. As reunions go, it’s a success.
It’s also one of those reunions where everybody and their cousin shows up. Do you need to have seen the first “Coming to America” to get all the family in-jokes? Well, yes, but that’s easy enough: It can be had everywhere for a $3 rental and holds up remarkably well. That first film told of Prince Akeem (Murphy) who, with his friend and adjutant, Semmi (Arsenio Hall), came to America fleeing an arranged marriage and found true love with the humble outer-borough princess Lisa McDowell (Shari Headley). “Coming 2 America” picks up three decades later and, refreshingly, retains Headley in her role (unlike the recent “Bill and Ted” sequel, which cast younger actresses), along with James Earl Jones as the aging King Jaffe, John Amos as Lisa’s fast-food entrepreneur father, Paul Bates as court announcer Oha, and other familiar faces. The casting is a nostalgia trip as well as a tribute to some well-loved performers.
Newcomers include Akeem and Lisa’s three daughters, the eldest of whom, the Amazonian Meeka (KiKi Layne of “If Beale Street Could Talk”), would inherit the throne if Zamunda’s patriarchal laws allowed it. General Izzi (a joyously hamboning Wesley Snipes, replacing the late Calvin Lockhart) is the bellicose leader of neighboring Nextdooria (yes), agitating for Meeka to marry his son (Rotimi). How convenient that Akeem learns he has a grown son from a one-night stand during his US visit, a fast-on-his-feet ticket scalper named Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) who is in no way prepared to be named a royal scion but is open to the possibilities.
Fowler is likably antic in the role, and when I tell you that his mother and uncle are played by, respectively, Leslie Jones and Tracy Morgan, you can be assured that the raucous end of the comedy spectrum is fulfilled. The midsection of “Coming 2 America” plays out as a cross-cultural clashing of classes, the crass American interlopers upsetting the genteel Zamundan way of palace life. But having set up a number of character conflicts, the script allows them to melt away, scene by scene, through fellow feeling or maybe just inertia.
One of the pleasures of the original film was the royal pageantry of comings and goings, keyed to pan-African-meets-American fashion, dance, and music. Under the direction of Craig Brewer, who worked with Murphy so well in “Dolemite Is My Name” (2019), “Coming 2 America” if anything ups the ante, with musical appearances by names old school (Salt-n-Pepa, En Vogue) and new (John Legend), and a rendition of “Midnight Train to Zamunda” sung by exactly who you think it would be. The soundtrack of this movie comes as a particular tonic right now (although why the orchestral score repurposes passages from “The Godfather” is a mystery for the ages).
How are Murphy and Hall? Barely missing a beat, either as Prince Akeem and Semmi or under heavy makeup as the other characters who studded the original film: the ancient haircutters and customers at the My-T Sharp barbershop, the testifying Reverend Brown, and the braggadocious disco king Randy Watson. The throughline to classic Black comedy of the Dolemite era and beyond was never clearer than in those scenes in the first film and the new ones still pack a joyously rude kick.
At the same time, all this plot threatens to reduce Murphy to an extra in his own movie, especially as Lavelle’s burgeoning romance with his royal groomer (a charming Nomzamo Mbatha) increasingly takes up the foreground. The plot of “Coming 2 America” is wheezy and skeletal, each scene set up to teach one character or another a lesson in humility (except for Jones and Morgan, who don’t do humility — that’s their superpower). A late-inning pep talk to Akeem from Amos’s Cleo carries a tenderness the rest of the film works hard to match, but if Layne gets just enough to do, which still isn’t enough, the actresses playing her sisters get even less.
All that’s not enough to blunt the good vibes, but it does keep “Coming 2 America” from moving up a rung to the genuinely inspired. Skillfully and warmly catering to our affection for the past will have to do.
N.B.: Stick around during the closing crawl for the usual bloopers, a pandemic-era living room serenade from Legend — and the wholly unexpected credit “Special Thanks to the Estate of Art Buchwald.” Somewhere the lawyers are smiling.
COMING 2 AMERICA
Directed by Craig Brewer. Written by Kenya Barris, Barry W. Blaustein, David Sheffield, and Justin Kanew. Starring Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Jermaine Fowler, Kiki Layne, Leslie Jones, Tracy Morgan, Wesley Snipes. Available on Amazon Prime. 110 minutes. PG-13 (crude and sexual content, language, drug content)