This weekend the Eddie Murphy flick Coming to America turns 30 years old. Released on June 29th, 1988, the film was the latest in a string of blockbusters for the former Saturday Night Live comic turned superstar and the beginning of the end of his run of unmatched 80’s hits. Murphy was, at the time of the release of Coming to America, perhaps the most famous and popular actor in Hollywood.
That’s what makes Coming to America so fascinating, it’s such an outlier to the Eddie Murphy persona we’d come to know. Coming to America casts Murphy not as a fast talking, Bug Bunny-esque schemer but as an innocent, good-hearted romantic seeking his one true love. Yes, Coming to America is chock-a-block with R-rated humor and some uncomfortable, stereotype based comedy, but what stands out 30 years later is how genuine and sweet Murphy is in the role of Prince Akeem.
In Coming to America, Murphy’s Prince Akeem is a pampered Prince, the heir to the thrown of the fictional country of Zamunda, think Wakanda minus Vibranium but with serious oil wealth. Akeem’s every whim have been attended to throughout his life and he finds the treatment lacking. Akeem longs to be challenged, especially by a woman of intellect as well as attractiveness. Unfortunately for Akeem, his birthday is also his arranged wedding day.
After meeting his bride and finding that she’s been bred to serve his every whim, just like everyone else in his life, Akeem asks his father, the King (James Earl Jones) for the chance to travel and see the world, a plea that his father believes is about ‘sowing his wild oats.’ With his friend and faithful servant Semmi (Arsenio Hall) at his side, Akeem decides to go to America to seek the girl of his dreams and chooses the aptly named borough of Queens as his destination.
Here’s where the film squanders its premise. Director John Landis, rather than sew the film with magic and romance to go with Murphy’s talent for getting laughs, he instead chooses crudity and sitcomic slapstick of the slamming doors variety. While Akeem is all sweetness and charming naivete, the rest of the movie is crude and the script by veterans Barry Blaustein and David Shefflied chases the easiest possible fish out of water laughs.
Don’t misunderstand, Coming to America is funny but it could have been something more. Eddie Murphy delivers a genuine and romantic performance as Prince Akeem. It’s an outlier in Murphy’s career, playing a character who is earnest and genuine and not hiding behind quips or a gun. Murphy is still charming and as wildly charismatic as ever with that big, goofy grin of his but, for once, we believe the character is happy not at the expense of others.
Murphy elevates the material which is deeply lacking in originality. His chemistry with everyone from Jones as his father, to Hall as his best friend, and even bland leading lady Lisa, played by Shari Headley, is typically off the charts. It’s a star performance of the highest order and that’s what makes me wish the film had more ambition. There is a rich idea in play here and yet everyone except for Murphy appears content to take the easy way out.
That is not to say that Coming to America is completely bereft of invention. Costume designer Deborah Nadoolman earned an Academy Award nomination for her elegant and lively costumes including the African wedding party decked out in such an elaborate display that the two scenes depicting the wedding may well have been all that was needed to secure her nomination. It’s not just the elaborate costumes though as Murphy and Hall, Jones and Headley all carry a modern, moneyed style that is striking in a GQ fashion.
The set design is also a great deal more ambitious than the script for Coming to America. Production Designer Richard MacDonald created brilliant sets for the African portion of the film with opulence to spare. The King’s castle in Zamunda is elaborate and beautifully designed while the Queens portion more or less designed itself with it’s trashy, earthy grit, though MacDonald deserves credit for Akeem and Semmi’s briefly stylish apartment and the design of the home of Lisa’s father, played with abundant charisma by John Amos.
There is also invention in the makeup department of Coming to America as director John Landis indulged Murphy’s love of playing multiple characters by having him play four separate characters aside from Akeem. Murphy is especially good at playing loudmouthed no-it-alls and his barbershop character Clarence is right in his comic wheelhouse. Even more impressive however, is Saul, an old Jewish denizen of the barbershop who seamlessly fits the aesthetic of 80’s Queens even as he embodies a very particular stereotype.
There are also clever running gags in Coming to America that elevate the otherwise moribund and derivative script. Eriq LaSalle plays Lisa’s boyfriend, Darrly, the son of a jheri-curl magnate. Jokes about Darryl and his family’s chosen hairstyle pop up throughout Coming to America and while the jokes are desperately dated now, I still laughed when they popped up 30 years later. Younger audiences might get the joke in a different way, tittering in disbelief that such a hairstyle was indeed a popular 70’s and 80’s trend.
Coming to America is a mixed bag. It’s far from a bad movie, thanks to Murphy, but it is lacking in ambition. The script is too simple and John Landis’ direction takes the easy way out on the jokes while almost overdoing the production design and costumes. I love the production design and the costumes but they are a sign of a movie of a great deal more ambition than that of Coming to America which wants to deliver sitcom laughs at feature film prices.