The Sequel Is Not the Second Coming
By Noah Gittell
It’s necessary to start with a small spoiler: Randy Watson, the lead singer of Queen-based band Sexual Chocolate, does appear in “Coming 2 America.” One of several characters played by an unrecognizable Eddie Murphy in the original 1988 film, the joke was once that Watson is a terrible singer: frequently off-key, with poor breath control and no ability to connect with the crowd. He sang “The Greatest Love of All,” and I died laughing.
Watson and Sexual Chocolate show up near the end of “Coming 2 America” for a celebratory performance, but there is something different about them: They’re actually good. Maybe Watson took a lot of singing lessons in the last 33 years, but it’s more likely that the filmmakers were more interested in giving us a good time than making any actual comedy. There are a whopping four musical numbers in the film, all of which tickle our nostalgia bone. It’s a running theme: “Coming 2 America” is simply content to reference what we love about the original film without expanding on its charms.
It opens once again with Zamunda in crisis. Prince Akeem is set to inherit the throne from his father (James Earl Jones), but without a male heir of his own, he is afraid he will appear weak to his enemy, flamboyant military leader General Izzi (Wesley Snipes). When Akeem discovers he has a son in Queens, he and Semmi (Arsenio Hall) travel back to the land of their first adventure to locate Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) and return him to Zamunda so he can reclaim his birthright.
That’s a lot of plot and quite a few characters, and it’s only the beginning. We also meet Lavelle’s mother (Leslie Jones) and uncle (Tracy Morgan), who come along for the ride, and Akeem’s wife Lisa (Shari Headley) and three daughters, the eldest of whom is furious that Zamunda law prohibits a woman from inheriting the throne. Cleo McDowell (John Amos) also makes an appearance, as does his employee played by Louis Anderson. And the boys from the My-T-Sharp barber shop are back, as funny and politically incorrect as ever.
It’s an overstuffed bit of fan service, similar to last year’s “Bill and Ted Face the Music,” that will barely satisfy fans of the original film but certainly not earn the franchise any new ones. It has been so long since Murphy has appeared even in a halfway decent comedy vehicle that simply seeing him in a comedic milieu is warmly comforting. He’s still a master of the comic reaction shot, and while the film doesn’t conjure any big set pieces for him, there’s an inherent pleasure in spending time with him.
What’s so frustrating is that director Craig Brewer essentially sticks Murphy in the background in the second half in favor of Lavelle’s familiar journey of self-discovery. Back in Zamunda, Lavelle is expected to marry the daughter of General Izzi as a power-sharing agreement, but he falls instead for the royal barber (KiKi Layne) and must convince his father to let him marry for love. It’s the exact same plot as the original film, but with a lead who is not as funny or charismatic. No offense meant to Mr. Fowler, who is both funny and charismatic, but he’s no young Eddie Murphy.
Like far too many long-gestating sequels, “Coming 2 America” seems designed to be tolerated rather than truly enjoyed. It takes no risks. Instead of building on the successes of the original film, it wants only to remind you of them. It’s not so much a movie as it is an exhibit in the Movie Comedy Hall of Fame. “Here, folks, is our re-creation of one of the great comedies of the 1980s. The foundation is a little flimsy, though, so please don’t touch, or the whole thing might fall apart.”
“Coming 2 America” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.