Judge Kerry Birmingham finds it hard to believe there was a time when Eddie Murphy in prosthetic make-up was actually funny.
A comedy fable of royal romance.
Oh, Eddie Murphy, where have you gone? It's hard to discuss the career trajectory of Murphy without alternately wincing and wondering just what the hell he was thinking. Working his way from edgy stand-up to Saturday Night Live, Beverly Hills Cop made him a star, and Murphy became one of the unquestionable hit-makers of the 80s. His career took a turn for the worse in the 90s—I blame the misguided horror/comedy Vampire in Brooklyn, personally—and he's never quite recaptured that glory since. This doesn't mean he hasn't had hits, among them remakes like The Nutty Professor and Dr. Doolittle, but for the most part Murphy has spent his middle age collecting paychecks whoring out his Shrek character, Donkey, and cancelling out a career-redefining role in Dreamgirls with low comedies like Norbit. Up or down, Murphy's movies have rarely retained the madcap edge he's known for, manic or brazen, but rarely both. This new edition of Coming to America, offered here for the umpteenth time by Paramount, presents Murphy in what's probably his last great comedy of the 80s, or possibly of his career.
Facts of the Case
Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy, Meet Dave) is the bored, pampered prince of a wealthy African nation. Faced with his people's traditional arranged marriage on his 21st birthday, Akeem instead yearns for a woman of his own choosing who will challenge him and love him for who he is, not his station. To that end, he enlists his beleaguered friend, Semmi (Arsenio Hall, Harlem Nights) to accompany him on a trip to America, where Akeem hopes to find a bride in the most royal-sounding city in the country-Queens, New York. Traveling incognito and working in fast food, Akeem and Semmi find that America and its women aren't anything like they expected.
A hit at the time of its release and among Murphy's more well-liked movies among fans, Coming to America brings together two comedic forces, Murphy and Animal House director John Landis (speaking of late-career slumps…). The two men's sensibilities mesh surprisingly well, both crude and topical, coming at the same material with the audacity of a performer and the wry timing of a veteran comedy director. There's no real reason why Coming to America should work as well as it does, encompassing any number of stereotypes (an eyebrow-raising depiction of Africa among the most prominent) and hinging on a fairly flimsy romantic-comedy premise. The raunchy fairy-tale quality works for the movie, with Murphy's charm selling Akeem's earnest optimism in the face of 80s New York squalor. Satire sneaks in via the movie's portrayal of upper-class black America and Akeem's cheerfully oblivious grasp of cynical American culture, but this is above all an over-the-top comedy with a grounded romance, and that approach makes all the difference. When Akeem falls for Lisa (Shari Headley), the engaged daughter of his boss (John Amos, Roots), it's a pre-ordained romance, but one that works with Akeem's doggedly oblivious idealism.
Coming to America, aside from being possibly the only time Arsenio Hall's been funny outside his own show, is most remembered for the large cast of characters, all played by Murphy and Hall. Under prosthetics by Rick Baker which still look pretty good twenty years later, Hall and Murphy vamp as a lecherous preacher, a has-been lounge singer, elderly barbers, and (memorably) as a very masculine blind date. These are the sections of the movie where the two get to cut loose, and their rapport is instant and a hoot. Watching him rant as a delusional Queens barber, while reacting to himself made up as an old Jewish man, reminds you of how funny Murphy could be even at that stage of his career. The prosthetic make-up would later be further exploited by Murphy in The Nutty Professor and—it pains me to even type it as often as this—Norbit. In those movies, the prosthetics were a crutch. Here, they're a tool for two comedians to do their thing. Landis's sense of the absurd comes through—"A shame what they did to that dog," says Akeem's shady landlord, referring to the chalk outline of a man and a dog on their apartment floor—but the wry Landis touch gets a jolt from Murphy and Hall's energy. In addition to John Amos's appearance, star spotters will love seeing ER's Eriq LaSalle as Lisa's shallow boyfriend, Louie Anderson as a dour fast-food employee, an early screaming role for Samuel L. Jackson, and the future Mr. and Mrs. Lion King, James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair, as Akeem's strict parents.
This version of the DVD, previously released as a single-disc edition and a two-disc collector's edition, is about as egregious a money-grab rerelease as you're likely to find. Paramount, apparently acutely aware of the movie's time-capsule of 1980s culture, has rebranded this and other films of the era with the unfortunately punctuated "I Love the 80s" moniker, which mainly consists of a garish, cover art-obscuring logo and an 80s compilation CD containing four songs of the era: "Lips Like Sugar" by Echo & the Bunnymen; "Chains of Love" by Erasure; "Need You Tonight" by INXS; and a-ha's "Take On Me." With no connection to Coming to America and based on the generic nature of the track selection, one assumes that the same CD comes with each "I Love the 80s" title.
The fifteen whole minutes of unrelated music notwithstanding, the 80s theme wouldn't be so bad if the special features on the DVD exploited it in some manner. Lord knows there's plenty of 80s culture to lampoon in Coming to America, from late 80s New York to the ubiquitous "Soul Glow" hair gel ads that set up one of the movie's better gags. Instead, we don't get even that tenuous tie-in: the theatrical trailer is the sole extra. Between this, the fuzzy, unrestored picture, and bland sound mix, it's unclear to whom this version of the movie is meant to appeal. Fans of 80s nostalgia will find nothing here of value, and neither will home theatre enthusiasts and fans who own previous releases of the movie. It's a pretty transparent cash-grab by Paramount, and both the movie and consumers deserve more than a half-hearted gimmick.
It's sweet, it's dumb, and it's unquestionably funny. Coming to America might just miss the arguable distinction of "modern comedy classic," but it's a fine time capsule of a few careers that were still at their peak. The "I Love the 80s" edition is useless, but admirers may want to track down the Collector's Edition to remind themselves how funny all that McDonald's/McDowell's business really was. Murphy's rarely been this funny in the decades since.
The movie itself is not guilty. Paramount, however, should, at the very
least, be ashamed of this lackluster re-release.
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