Most enduring about 1988’s Coming to America is how endearing it is despite its perceived flaws. It’s a very simple fish-out-of-water tale, though one that succeeds on the earnest goodwill of its performers. It’s a little overlong as it parcels screen time to an expansive ensemble cast, but cutting it down would deny us some truly funny bits. It was the inception of Eddie Murphy’s trademark of playing multiple caricatures while buried in makeup, which is either a famous or infamous factoid, depending on your perspective. And while its premise is a fairly obvious “I’m royalty but I only want to marry a commoner” scenario, there’s a certain progressivism to the genuineness of its perspective, an earnest attempt to buck regressive norms and embrace the romanticism of individuality.
Befitting the standard Hollywood sequel mold, Coming 2 America doubles down on everything that made the original so charming, so we smile revisiting everything that worked, and roll our eyes at everything that didn’t. This is definitely, as they say, “one for the fans,” a gleeful revisiting of characters and moments that have been elevated to iconic status over time. Though one senses this is also “one for the makers,” a celebratory reunion of actors and filmmakers who shared a wonderful experience 33 years ago.
Yes, 33 years ago. Amazingly, it’s not the longest gap between sequels (I’d guess nothing will top the 54 years it took to deliver Mary Poppins Returns, though it’d be naïve to assume the industry has already reached the peak of its ambition to resurrect ancient IP), but it’s a vast range for a film that hinges almost entirely on callbacks to the original. Audiences who enter cold certainly won’t get that repetitive “oh yeah, they did that joke again” recognition, but because the film retains the same infectious spirit of the original, that might not matter.
When we first met Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy), he fought to claim his agency to find true love in the face of the African Kingdom of Zamunda’s rigid arranged marriage tradition. Three decades later, as Akeem is poised to claim the throne from his ailing father (James Earl Jones), he seems to have lost touch with his inner trailblazer as he frets over his failure to produce a male heir, as Zamundan tradition dictates. Though his eldest daughter, Meeka (Kiki Layne), is a fierce warrior and worthy successor, Akeem overlooks her after receiving the unexpected news that he may have, in fact, fathered a son during his original trip to Queens in 1988. The details of the conception are off-putting at best, massaged by the screenplay to maintain Akeem’s inner purity and thereby inadvertently veering into misogyny, another unfortunate replication of the earlier film. Along with Royal Assistant Semmi (Arsenio Hall), Akeem once again travels to America to meet his son, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), and train him in the ways of Zamundan royalty.
The screenplay, credited to original writers Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield along with Black-ish creator Kenya Barris (notably the only black key creative on either film), awkwardly juggles a handful of storylines from multiple points-of-view. Lavelle, plucked from the specific culture of Queens, approaches the rigidity of royal life with a reticence similar to that of his father in the original film; Akeem, feeling the pressure to uphold customs as the newly-crowned king, embraces that which he once questioned; and Meeka, capable and defiant, yearns for recognition by the father who once pledged to transform Zamundan culture. The shift in perspectives muddies the script’s focus, ultimately sacrificing the details of Meeka’s story, an unintentional dismissal of the female perspective oddly similar to the one portrayed in the film.
The lack of concentration also prolongs the film unnecessarily, bloating this otherwise lighthearted romp. The original film felt long and this one feels even longer, though it’s something of a justified indulgence for both its fans and its makers, for whom this is clearly a labor of love. The sequences of exaggerated African rituals and dance numbers sporadically featured in the first film are even more numerous and lengthy in Coming 2 America, but they embody what this now-franchise was always aiming for: a simultaneous winking satire and earnest embrace of cultural celebration. This hugely expansive cast of nearly all black performers (with the obvious and essential exception of Louie Anderson) is clearly having a blast, returning a genuinely impressive number of even the most fleeting cameo characters. It offers nothing new, but it isn’t trying to, and it’s more refreshingly explicit about its intent than most other franchise sequels. If Coming to America was a sweet and imperfect lark, Coming 2 America is an uncanny heir.