Saturday 6 July 2013

Letterboxd: COMING TO AMERICA (1988)

Saturday 6 July 2013
At the height of his fame in 1988, Eddie Murphy starred in COMING TO AMERICA, directed by John Landis, who had helmed their hit movie TRADING PLACES five years earlier. Landis would later comment that Murphy had gone from "curious and funny and fresh and great" to "the pig of the world" in those intervening years, but thankfully Murphy's off-screen personality change isn't detectable in this film.

It's interesting that both Murphy's movies with Landis involve characters changing their social status; with TRADING PLACES a loose update of THE PRINCE & THE PAUPER story (Murphy as a street hustler who becomes rich), and in COMING TO AMERICA it's the reverse with Murphy as a prince who feigns poverty. I guess the idea of sudden wealth/impoverishment grabbed the public imagination in the era of the yuppie.

It's always fun to watch comedies from decades ago, because they tend to have a different rhythm and sensibility. COMING TO AMERICA feels very lackadaisical compared to its closest modern cousin (Sacha Baron Cohen-starring THE DICTATOR), and didn't contain very many moments where I laughed aloud. That's not to say it isn't a funny movie, it's just aiming for a constant feeling of amusement.

The story concerns Prince Akeem Joffer (Murphy), heir to the throne of fictional African country Zamunda, who flees an arranged marriage to find a bride he truly loves. Together with his trusted friend/servant Semmi (Arsenio Hall), Akeem flies to America and gets a job as a cleaner at a McDonald's rip-off called McDowell's in Queens, New York. The 1980s version of the Big Apple where it looks like someone's tipped an ash-tray over the city, which looks increasingly alien to me. (Subway trains were coated in graffiti, inside-and-out, back then. It's hard to believe.) You can guess the broad strokes of the plot at this point: Akeem falls in love with his irascible boss's daughter, Lisa (Shari Headley), and aims to win her hand in marriage without revealing he's a prince with a multi-million fortune.

I had fun with COMING TO AMERICA, which hasn't dated too badly beyond the pace of jokes being a little sluggish. I think a contemporary remake would make the whole thing punchier. Murphy's very charismatic and likeable as the debonair prince in fish-out-of-water mode, and also gets the opportunity to play multiple roles alongside sidekick Hall—which became something of a calling card for future Murphy films, until the whole thing turned ludicrous and ate itself with NUTTY PROFESSOR 2: THE KLUMPS.

It was also fun to spot Samuel L. Jackson in an early role as an armed robber, and there's a fantastic in-joke when Akeem donates a fortune to two homeless men and we realise they're Mortimer (Don Ameche) and Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) from TRADING PLACES—which means COMING TO AMERICA is taking place in the same 'movie universe' and just gave us a one-scene sequel. Awesome. Oh, worth mentioning the wonderful James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair as Akeem's royal parents, who would essentially reprise these roles for THE LION KING six years later.

COMING TO AMERICA is a solid '80s blockbuster comedy that reminds you why Eddie Murphy rose to such prominence back then, but for modern tastes it's perhaps too slow-moving and predictable. But there's also a certain amount of comfort in being told a good story where the outcome's never really in doubt, affording some wrinkles for the cast to have fun (although Murphy and Hall playing cantankerous old barbers just seems very indulgent and unfunny to me nowadays).

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