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News from Paramount Pictures is that a possible follow-up to Eddie Murphy‘s late 80s comedy Coming To America is in early stages of development, with the original writers (Barry Blaustein, David Sheffield) hired to work up a draft, though no casting choices, including Murphy himself, have been confirmed. That’s not all that surprising considering the number of reboots and remakes from that decade now in the works, but be that as it may, it’s time to dust of the old DVD and take a look at the original.
The story, written by Murphy, is a familiar one, and, as you might already know, was the center of a lawsuit (settled out of court) as Art Buchwald claimed he’d already written a treatment for the film years early. It follows a young prince named Akeem Joffer (Murphy) celebrating his birthday in his home country of Zamunda, a fictional land in Africa. Exceedingly pampered his whole life, including sexual favors, he is about to meet his wife, chosen by the King and Queen, his parents. Deciding he’s rather fall in love than be set up, he takes a break from royalty and travels to New York City to find a girl, and where else should he go but Queens. Once, there, he’s a fish out of water and he’s got to prove himself worthy as man, not a prince, to a woman he finally meets.
The movie is another one of those films that is remembered as being really funny though in replay doesn’t quite work as well. That’s not entirely the movie’s fault. Sensibilities shift. What worked thirty years ago doesn’t always do it now. Coming To America is often slow and heavy, and as was common in that era, overly-profane and not quite so progressive with how to treat women, though there are some very good moments nonetheless and Shari Headley, playing Akeem’s American love interest is the movie’s heart.
This was Murphy’s first romantic lead, the first time he didn’t play a wise-cracking smart-alec, and the first time he played multiple roles in one movie, including a cantankerous barber and an elderly white Jewish man. It would be a trend that would populate many of his films in the 90s and like those films as well, were mostly hit or miss. There’s also Arsenio Hall, playing Akeem’s best friend/personal aide, Semmi, and earns a few laughs on his own.
Directed by John Landis, who helped bring Murphy to the big screen in 1983’s Trading Places, the movie is a curious watch three decades on, one that actually starts very strong before falling into a very narrow sit-com style routine that sets up and knocks down all the usual gags. It’s an interesting bit of nostalgia that in all honestly might actually be best served with an update, one that could, done right, reflect the two eras onto each other and deliver a worthy message. Either way, reboot or not, like every movie, the original has one great moment.
Perhaps surprising, given the setting, it is in fact the start of Coming To America that works best, with the opening moments detailing, mostly with some laughs, the life of Akeem on the morning of his twenty-first birthday. That features a small live orchestra to serve as his alarm clock, ‘wipers’ for his bathroom needs, a tooth brusher and a separate throat massager for gargling. Nude women bath him and everywhere he goes, three beautiful girls spread rose petals at his feet.
It all seems extravagant and lavish and even a bit dehumanizing for Akeem and the myriad servants (an interesting touch I noticed is that each of the servants has a gold brace on their left ankle, strangely reminiscent of shackles), leaving the young man living in the lap of luxury but also devoid of independence and free will. This is compounded further when he dresses for his morning polo match and arrives for breakfast with the king and queen (also, he never plays polo).
We see an enormous hall, a large table at the center adorned as if for a gala, and on one end are King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) and Queen Aeoleon (Madge Sinclair) and on the far end, Akeem. They are surrounded by staff and rose bearers and such. Akeem looks distraught and his mother notices.
Their son breaks with tradition and suddenly makes his way to his parent’s end of the table and joins them, sending the servants into a scurry. Once there, there offers a confession, that he is, despite the opulent lifestyle, unhappy with everything being done for him. He longs to take care of himself (though doesn’t mind the bathing so much) and most especially, having learned he will meet his wife this evening, that he wants to find a girl on his own. He is told that the woman selected to be his spouse has, since the day she was born, been raised to act like and serve as a queen, however, Akeem makes a fair point, asking, “What if I don’t love her?”
The king and queen follow this up with what arguably might be the funniest and spot-on assessment of love in this movie or any other, with Aeoleon saying she was nervous and a little sick when first meeting the king, and he admitting the same, declaring, “there is a fine line between love and nausea.” It’s really kind of funny, their delivery and the line.
What makes this brief scene so effective though, is how it so perfectly establishes what and who Akeem is, both as a product of his royal blood and the consequences of what that means. We perceive and expect that a prince would be free of want, his life an open door of opportunity and availability, the catering to his every need a fantasy for some but in truth, a trap that has left him wholly unprepared for most basic social skills. What’s really important about the Akeem character is that he recognizes this and understands that he is in fact prisoner to his lineage. A man with everything is a man with nothing.
Coming To America is a product of its time, losing much of the edge it might have had over the years, and perhaps lacking some to begin with. Murphy is so dynamic, we almost forget that he carries most of his films with sheer force of charm, though he tempers that quite a bit here, leaving the peripheral characters to do much of the comedy heavy lifting. While there are still plenty of good bits here (John Amos is hysterical), a return to the material could be a good idea, especially if Murphy signs on. Meanwhile, the opening scene of the original is worth checking again. It’s a great cinematic moment.