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Coming to America (1988) Movie Retro Review By Stephen McLaughlin

Coming to America

Director: John Landis
Writers: Eddie Murphy (story), David Sheffield (screenplay)
Stars: Eddie Murphy, Shari Headley,  James Earl Jones, Madge Sinclair, Arsenio Hall, Paul Bates, John Amos, Eriq La Salle

There was a time when a Comedy Film from Eddie Murphy was a guaranteed laugh a minute whether that be in an Action / Adventure Comedy or a Romantic Comedy. Through Eddie playing multiple characters and yes, it was funny. I am talking about a time before “The Klumps” in a Romatic Comedy film by John Landis (Director) named “Coming to America” from 1988. The film is about an extremely pampered African Prince named Akeem who travels to Queens, New York, and goes undercover to find a wife whom he can respect for her intelligence and will.

48 Hrs (great), Trading Places (Amazingly Funny), Beverly Hills Cop I & II (one of the best franchises of the 1980s) and The Golden Child (fantastic) all came before this movie I am about to review. It’s fair to say (even stating the obvious) that Eddie Murphy could do no wrong in the 1980’s and I mean from 1982 right through. He was a guaranteed box office success for studios and along with his successful stand up material he was at the height of his comedic powers. Moving into the 1990’s is another story for another day that I’ll get round to when I’m talking about the likes of Murphy, Chase, Martin and some other comedy actors of that time that just didn’t fit in anymore at the turn of that decade.

Here Murphy plays Prince Akeem and after running out on his arranged marriage, sets his sights on finding his bride to be in America (Queens, New York to be precise). To accompany him on his journey is his trusty sidekick Semmi (Arsenio Hall) in a tale about two early 20’s guys who have been pampered all of their lives trying to adapt and fit into a regular life in New York. It really is a tale about a fish out of water, who doesn’t want anyone to know of his Royal secret in his quest to find someone who will love him for being him and not for what he has. Now if you where a kid of the 1980’s you may not have been allowed to watch this for its obscenities and it’s adult theme in verbal abuse. I however was one of the fortunate ones who saw this when I was 13 or 14 around 1990 and loved it the first time around and anytime I see it on TV I just happen to start watching it and remind myself how funny the film is. Don’t get me wrong writers Murphy and Sheffield don’t really go for offensive humour as the main theme. Those moments are justified in Akeem and Semmi’s environment in a rough part of Queens in which they stand out like sore thumbs (even when they try to blend in its obvious) No instead the writers have a cleverly written and layered story. In particular some of the scenes have a rewatchability value that lead back to some of Murphy’s previous work.

Eddie Murphy is not only funny as Akeem but his multiple characters such as the barber shop clients of Clarence and Saul (a white man, yes that’s right a white man) are hilariously funny and Murphy’s observations into such characters can’t go unnoticed. The one that probably stands out the most and is arguably the show stealer is Randy Watson. A terrible lounge singer who has somehow muscled his way into a fund raising rally for a kids charity. Akeem and Semmi attend this rally in search of finding an honest and decent young lady for Akeem to meet but instead are subjected to “The Greatest Love Of All” by Randy Watson and his backing band Sexual Chocolate. The first time I witnessed this scene I was in tears of laughter. Not one member of the audience initially applauded the efforts of Watson at the end of his rendition and when the character stamps his feet to his outburst “Sexual Chocolate” it is a moment of desperation for the terrible singer who probably only begins to realise how tone deaf he really is. Murphy plays multiple character in the movie but at no point is it distracting or takes you out of the movie. Clarence is opinionated and offensive, Saul is a quieter funny man and they are only in a couple of scenes to guide Akeem on his way to the rally. It is here Akeem meets Lisa McDowell who is co owner of the burger chain “McDowells” (not to be confused with McDonalds) and is one of the main contributors and organisers to the cause. It is here Akeem first claps eyes on the young lady and it’s fair to say it is love at first sight for the young Prince.

Arsenio Hall is a terrific and very funny man who is probably more famous in the US than over here in the UK. I admit that I didn’t know who he was until I saw this movie and to me he is as funny as Murphy in Coming to America. Unlike Akeem, Semii is more devious and self centred, only interested in himself and using his position of power to indulge in life’s luxuries. He is against “squatting” in Queens when he knows they could live in the Plaza or somewhere else that they are accustomed to and resents Akeems decision to blend in this much, Hall plays this petulantly but at the same time in a lovable way. More like a spoilt kid who doesn’t want to change his ways and struggles with manual work and living a normal life.

The supporting cast of Shari Headley, James Earl Jones, Madge Sinclair, Paul Bates, John Amos and Eriq La Salle is strong and wisely chosen. I think it’s fair to say that they all bring the same humour to the story and watch out for a little cameo from Samuel L Jackson that is really funny and shows us what we could look forward to in his career going forward. Having James Earl Jones as the father and King Jaffe Joffer was a master stroke. At this point I only knew him as the voice of Darth Vader but along with Madge Sinclair as the Queen Aoleon and Akeem’s mother, both would go on to become somewhat a King and Queen of another variety in 1994’s The Lion King as Mufasa (Jones) and Sarabi (Sinclair)

Landis as Director was a great decision. His early work in Animal House and The Blues Brothers was obvious on why they went with the man, but the deal clincher for Murphy would have been working with Landis previously on Trading Places. A Benchmark in 1980’s comedy films. They would of course work again in the mid 1990’s in the mostly disappointing third instalment to the Beverley Hill Cop series but Landis throughout his career has had more hits than flops. Coming to America was certainly a hit. In recent times, both Director and Actor have been linked with a possible sequel to the 1988 movie and I hope that it remains just a rumour. There is no reason to revisit these characters as the story was concluded in a satisfying way and for the life of me cannot get my head around in which direction these characters could go today without it souring the originals ending. Landis’ talents made him one of the hottest properties in the 1980’s. Harold Ramis wanted him so desperately for Meatballs and he was also asked to direct National Lampoon’s Vacation which Ramis did himself in the end due to Landis working on “An American Werewolf In London”

Overall Coming to America is a timeless comedy that is a must see and at a time Eddie Murphy was at the height of his comedy fame. The story is an age old one about finding love for all the right reasons and going against tradition and family pressures. The Film isn’t meant to be an all out comedy but has some of the funniest work by Eddie Murphy. His films had a knack of doing this. Beverly Hills Cop was more Action / Adventure but Murphy knew when to add the comedy and here it works without taking you out of the story. I still enjoy watching this if it pops up on the television and the movie is now 30 years old and I have lost count on how many times I have watched this and it still holds up to this day. If you haven’t watched this film yet then I recommend if you are looking for a comedy film that has meaning then this is the one for you. I’m off now to McDowells for a ‘Big Mick and Fries”.

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