“People tell me, ‘don’t you care what they’ve done to your book?’ I tell them, ‘they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf.’”
– James M. Cain interviewed in The New York Times, “The Wish of James M. Cain” (2 March 1969)
*[NOTE: I saw Coming 2 America as part of an advanced screening on Thursday – 4 March 2021.]
I vividly remember my parents taking me and my brother to see Coming to America during its original run. It was rare that we ever got to see R-rated movies with them, and the chance to see a new Eddie Murphy flick was irresistible.
The movie wasn’t just funny – debatably, the icing on the cake of Murphy’s 1980s stardom – it was unapologetically Black. Yes, it was written and directed by white guys, but the unmistakable influence of Murphy (who wrote the story), his collaborators, and the Black community as a whole was apparent. There’s a reason we all know the Soul Glo theme by heart after 30-plus years.
With returning cast members and writers, Coming 2 America should be both a loving tribute to, and natural continuation of, the beloved original. Instead, it’s a cheapo, straight-to-video knock-off drowning in poor writing and ham-fisted fan service.
Let’s get this out of the way: the entire premise of this movie is a rape joke played for laughs. I am not kidding. Through the use of bad CG compositing and even worse digital de-aging, we see that Akeem (Murphy) and Semmi’s (Arsenio Hall) hilarious night of bar-hopping ended with Semmi inviting to easy girls back to their apartment. One of the ladies, played by the always-wrong-choice of Lesli Jones, got Akeem high and then had sex with him when he was unable to consent – which current-day Akeem emphasizes that he didn’t.
This resulted in the conception of Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler), the American-born male heir to the throne of Zamunda; the one whose succession supersedes that of Akeem’s three daughters, and whose marriage to the princess of neighboring Nexdoria could prevent a war.
What made Coming to America so great was that it knew the difference between eccentricities and stereotypes, fully embracing the former whilst avoiding the latter. The sequel reverses that equation, becoming a nearly-two-hour minstrel show worthy of Vaudeville. Coming 2 America is a movie that thinks scraping the bottom of the barrel is too high-brow, so they’ll go even lower with trans jokes, gross-out gags, and repetition of the original’s punchlines without a single clue as to what made them funny. Did we really need to see a return of the Peaches Twins?
And that’s another thing: even without returning characters, the movie has an endless parade cameos that come off more like a celebrity sycophant trying to name-drop. We’ve got Morgan Freeman, Gladys Knight (ruining her classic hit “Midnight Train to Georgia”), Rick Ross just… standing in the background, and even Dikembe Mutombo dragged out of moth balls to lazily recreate his Geico tv spot from a decade ago.
Truly high comedy.
All of this comes at the sacrifice of both old an new characters. Lisa (Shari Headley), the head-strong would-be bride of the first film, is now a pushover of a woman relegated to being human wall paper for the movie’s run time. Akeem’s daughters get no development, not even the oldest who was meant to take the throne before Lavelle showed up. (There’s also an awkward pre-training scene where she and Lavelle – half-siblings, mind you – appear to be flirting.)
The still-problematic Wesley Snipes’ ruler of Nextdoria is the sort of idiotic “warlord” stereotype the first film thankfully avoided, though his daughter, played by Teyana Taylor, is one of the few bright spots in this whole miserable exercise.
It’s hard to figure out what’s the worst element of this movie: is it the PG-13 rating handcuffing an ensemble of comedians who best work blue (as they did in the original classic) or is it the fact that everything is so obviously cheap? I’m not kidding: the grand palace interiors of the original have been replaced by the “throne” just being two chairs in front of a curtain. Add to that all the bad cinematography and poor editing (how do you fuck up a Wesley Snipes fight scene?) and this trainwreck might as well just have premiered on BET or One.
In the past few weeks, I’ve had the privilege of seeing some truly great films in a year that’s just begun its third month – even a a few great Black movies (including one for which I can’t yet post my review). But then, I’ve also seen a few poor ones. Coming 2 America is not only the worst Black movie I’ve seen so far this year, it’s one of the worst 2021 movies yet. It’s a flick with such utter disdain for movie audiences of all races that I’m surprised it doesn’t end with the entire cast and crew giving the finger to the camera.
Instead, it ends with a badly recycled Dolemite joke. ‘Cause why not tread on his grave, too?