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‘Coming 2 America’ Just Wants to Be Liked

The greatest trick of the original film is the way that it played like an inside joke, a quality the sequel is noticeably lacking

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In the second act of Coming 2 America, the now–King Akeem’s recently discovered and hastily incorporated son, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), chats among the thickets of the royal garden with his hairdresser and love interest, Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha). They’re talking about the differences between America and Zamunda, the fictional African country that Lavelle is next in line to lead. Their pace and discussion meanders before landing on the topic of American filmmaking. “What do we have besides superhero shit, remakes, and sequels to old movies nobody asked for?” Lavelle asks.

“This is true about sequels,” Mirembe answers—and then, together, they finish the thought: “If something is good, why ruin it?”

Coming 2 America is here to show viewers that it’s aware of their reservations. For a sequel released 33 years after the original, this commitment to introspection could be interpreted as a gambit to dampen pushback, like a performer calling out their own weak points before the crowd can spot them bare. It’s very meta. And very calculated. There’s a shamelessness in the film’s self-awareness, a pretense that feels especially desperate. The movie just wants so badly to be liked.

What gave Coming to America its spunk was the piquant secret that to most of the intended audience, the movie was one big inside joke. It was a fish-out-of-water comedy that centered an imagined African monarch, but also provided a glimpse into what it meant to be a certain kind of American in the 1980s.

The original wasn’t without error. These were neither real Africans nor a real tale of immigration. The film glided on a combination of ignorance toward the continent and assumptive faith in viewers to discern fact from comedy. It boomed, still, because of its commitment to hold a jovial microscope to the oft-distorted and oft-derided crevices of U.S. life. Coming to America was not golden merely because it starred an overwhelming number of Black people; its appeal was in the fact that it allowed those figures to revel on-screen in ways they had never reveled before. The film’s greatest trick was that it laughed at a world only they knew. Jheri curls, grandiose ministers, barbershop theatrics, tenements with chalk-lined floors—you simply had to be there to get it. Coming 2 America, by contrast, just really wasn’t there.

We see first an aged Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) twirling in a dance of sparring cuts and blasts, encircled by his three daughters on a gold and white outdoor mat. Still as dutiful and gregarious as ever, Akeem’s right-hand man Semmi (Arsenio Hall) interrupts with a message from the King (James Earl Jones), who on his deathbed informs Akeem that they have identified a male heir. The boy, sired during his pilgrimage to America decades earlier, is Zamunda’s last hope at peace with the Nextdorian military despot General Izzi (Wesley Snipes). According to Zamundan law, none but a man can rule with sovereignty. Soon, in the wake of the King’s death, Akeem travels back to (or, rather, 2) America to convince his son to accept his birthright, emigrate to Zamunda, and come to an accord with Izzi by marrying his daughter (Teyana Taylor).

The story that follows foregrounds this fictional corner of Africa, abandoning the original film’s fidelity to American life. Dips and wanes are common—most of the sparse comedic peaks in the film involve Lavelle’s mother (Leslie Jones) or another stateside vestige—but it is a narrative nonetheless fascinated with mimicry. In the first film, Akeem elopes to America in search of love, but this time he arrives in Manhattan in search of family. It was once the prince who chafed at the social confines of monarchy, but now he is the one enforcing them. Coming 2 America is, in this way, a tapestry of bygone feelings repurposed and rethreaded for a new marketplace. There are new figures, but the formula is essentially unchanged.

Such an endeavor would be perilous enough considering the cast’s shift in stature since the film was released three decades ago. In the late ’80s, Murphy was a cultural supernova unseen before or since. He starred in the single most lucrative stand-up comedy special of all time, built his own production company, and grossed a combined nearly $700 million (not accounting for inflation) on the three films preceding Coming to America. Today he is respected and moves in and out of the limelight on his own accord, but his figure has warped. He’s known by the younger generations less for being the voice of Raw, and more for being the voice of a cartoon donkey. Hall, for his part, was the middleman for Black celebrity in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and a singularly popular and powerful gatekeeper in an era when access to his platform birthed fame. Now he is a (albeit relatively beloved) relic of an antiquated epoch in show business when comedic stardom was determined on late-night junkets. If comedy is not the domain of youth then it is, at least, the art of the committed. But two near-sexagenarians whose legends are already soldered are rarely that.

The playing field has changed, too. Cinema has never been produced by casts and crews alone. The priorities when making a movie include artistic merit, comedic zeal, and the like, but are, at the same time, linked above all to market exploitation. A movie can’t be made without money and money can’t be scrounged without forces that are monied themselves. In the era when that first film bloomed, studios were still rivaled in power by men like Murphy. Individual figures were the centers of the Hollywood universe and the primary draw to audiences. Today, the industry orbits around the quest for exclusive and expansive IP. There may still be space for stars on camera and behind it—but none will outshine the company. And those companies have found new hunting grounds.

A mutation is underway in whose stories get to the screens and what audiences are deemed lucrative. We are in the age of the “Black Movie” and the “Black TV Show”—narratives that unabashedly center race and are funded because of it. This is not the first time the business has turned toward artists and customers it once scorned; a push and pull toward underrepresented creators and then—after long enough—away from them, that is now a kind of intergenerational staple. Whether contemporary stories truly evince the politics they claim is besides the point. Hollywood speculators and profit-makers sense a river of gold flowing beneath their feet and are, for now, committed to tapping it. Films like Coming 2 America have always been products—the difference is today, more than ever, they are expected to sell.

The yield of this process can be unseemly. One scene at the onset of Coming 2 America is cluttered with cringeworthy product placement for Pepsi. Later, during a training session, Lavelle takes the opportunity, mid-conversation, to awkwardly announce his intentions to stream a Spotify playlist. In the middle of one of the movie’s more crucial moments, the camera lingers not on the faces on-screen, but on the logo of the red Chevrolet that Akeem has just exited. The deeper into the film you go, the less it feels like a comedy than an amalgamation of focus-group-tested advertisements.

The politics displayed do little to help the vibe. In one sequence, the son interviews for a job at a nondescript corporate office. The interviewer (Colin Jost) makes a few daft and painfully obvious racist observations (“You know, I’ve read a lot of studies that not having a dominant male figure at home is so detrimental to the child”) before Lavelle storms out of the office in what is coded as righteous defiance. Later in the barbershop—site to so much of the first film’s glory—a barrage of risqué barbs is quieted, momentarily, when a customer takes it just a bit too far, comparing Akeem and Semmi to “those hungry babies with the flies on their face.” Murphy’s master barber, gold-toothed and layered in prosthetics, invites the patron to “get up out my chair.” The interaction might as well have included a few winks to the camera and an outright assurance that despite the facts of the original, Coming 2 America knows where the line is.

The women in the film are the greatest obstacle to its edifice. Again and again, the movie is more interested in preening toward a costume of shared political language and understanding than in actually developing it. As if to rebut anticipated critiques of the virulent patriarchy engrained in the fictional society, Akeem’s daughter Meeka (Kiki Layne) is scrunched into a ham-fisted narrative that disappears and reappears at a moment’s notice. Where once there was fellatio of the “Royal Penis,” now there is cunnilingus of the “Royal Privates.” The only utterance of the word “fuck” appears in the post-credit bloopers. The film is as committed to not rippling the tide as the original was to ignoring the existence of one.

To pinpoint why is a guessing game. The playing field has changed. The people behind the movie have a certain set of expectations that weren’t there the first go-round. Maybe Murphy is a different man—this wouldn’t be the first time he softened out his rougher edges in favor of a family-friendly reformulation. Maybe the film’s writers, Kenya Barris and Co., are too used to broadcast television and its hemmed-in playbook. What’s sure is that, at some level, the makers of the film never really grasped the appeal of the original—that what made people journey to see Coming to America was neither allyship nor representation but, rather, the chance to simply laugh at things that only they knew.

A final and subtle hint of irony: The high point in Coming 2 America occurs during a flashback. Mirembe is encouraging Lavelle to forge his own path and make his own destiny, and, so, turns to the “Legend of Prince Akeem” to get her point across. For a burst, old scenes are displayed in a monochrome gray box on-screen. They’re quick, but they’re funny; in a theater they’d surely elicit an ovation, the magic of comedy built on rapport. Each highlight is a flicker of warmth, between lovers and friends, the film and us; every punchline a scrumptious secret unveiled and gorged upon together. But once those moments are gone—once the well runs dry—what’s left is a barren landscape. Besides the occasional retread of past laughs, there’s really nothing left to say.