The raw title of Coming 2 America is apart of a rare breed of sequel whose titles sound identical to their predecessors. It’s an attribute that’s probably the most clever thing about this movie, and also the most confusing, bound to throw off anyone trying to delineate the two when speaking aloud. While you can delineate the two simply by referring to this sequel as the “the lousy one,” the two similarly sounding titles are, actually, oddly fitting. They sum up how this new movie exists entirely in its predecessor’s shadow. That’s not exactly surprising — few comedy sequels escape those shadows and 1988’s Coming to America casts a pretty long one, as Eddie Murphy comedies go. And this sequel seems to carry the logic that it should just live within it.
Not too long from the movie’s immediate opening, we find Murphy’s Prince Akeem Joffer — soon to succeed his ailing father (James Earl Jones) as king of their fantasy kingdom Zamunda — learns that he fathered a son shortly before he met his future queen, Lisa (Shari Headly), during that fateful New York trip some thirty years prior. So Akeem and his closest confidant, Semmi (Arsenio Hall), return to the scene of their Queens scheme to try and locate the illegitimate heir. Zamunda may be an advanced society, but its laws of succession are a little out of date: Only a man can rule, which is bad news for Akeem and Lisa’s three daughters, Meeka (KiKi Layne), Omma (Bella Murphy, Eddie’s real-life daughter) and Tinashe (Akiley Love), all brilliant scholars and warriors in the finest Zamundan tradition.
By contrast, Akeem’s long-lost son Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) turns out to be an under-employed goofball who could hardly be less qualified for the throne. And so Coming 2 America unimaginatively reverses the fish-out-of-water formula of the original: Instead of the wide-eyed Zamundan naïf shouting expletives out a window, we get the street-smart New Yorker astounded by his new riches. (We also get the rambunctious duo of Lavelle’s mom and uncle who, as played by Leslie Jones and Tracy Morgan respectively, waste no time offending every delicate royal sensibility.) Life isn’t all fun and games, though: Lavelle will have to prove his worth by tussling with a lion and mastering Zamundan history. Meanwhile, stressed-out Akeem must juggle the responsibilities of a new son, the resent of his wife and daughters and the looming threat of an angry neighboring warlord (Wesley Snipes).
Murphy and Snipes notably did good, career-rejuvenating work together in 2019’s Dolemite Is My Name, whose director, Craig Brewer, is on hand for this movie. Both have the slick, anonymously ugly look that has become the director’s aesthetic signature, and in both you sense the actors likely had a good time making it, feeding off each other’s rhythms. From time to time, Coming 2 America stirs to life, but those moments are few and far between and far too little of that infectious good-time energy extends beyond the parameters of the screen and into the audience. The lack of a proper audience doesn’t help: Coming 2 America would appear to be the victim of spectacularly wretched timing, having waited thirty-three years to be born only to see its original theatrical distributor, Paramount Pictures, sell it to Amazon Studios for big chunk of change due to the pandemic. Perhaps some of this movie’s jokes would kill on the big screen rather than simply expiring on my couch. In a packed house, the audience might cackle knowingly at the shoutouts to classic bits and burst into applause at every familiar face.
Look, it’s John Amos! Paul Bates! And Louie Anderson! And Eddie Murphy, Eddie Murphy, Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall and Arsenio Hall! The latter, of course, refers to the movie’s obligatory Queens barbershop reunion, where a prosthetics-covered Murphy and Hall dispense wisecracks about dicey topics, occasionally grumbling about how they have to tread lightly with what they say. Yet, like so much of the humor in the film, it feels wholly timid. Rated PG-13 with a script from Kenya Barris and returning screenwriters Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield, it seems they attempted to please anyone and everyone: It’s as extravagant an act of fan service, in its way updated with the latest mainstream-comedy defaults. The movie tries to compensate for its big royalism with an awareness about the Zamundan patriarchy but stops short of actually making its female characters distinctive. (But, then again, that’s the same for about every character.)
Akeem is both the upholder of such patriarchy and the only one in a position to dismantle it. If Coming 2 America mostly fails as comedy, it’s not without interest as a portrait of middle-aged burnout and compromise. After his joyous work in Dolemite Is My Name, Murphy mostly straitjackets his usual exuberance in a way that feels like another throwback: More than a few critics rejected Coming to America back in 1988, after all, with some of them finding Murphy too tamped down after the robust comic showcases of Trading Places and the Beverly Hills Cop movies. Thirty-three years later, that restraint feels more like inertia with Akeem stranded in numerous ways, but, most notably, away from laughs. Feeling like a literal parade of nostalgia, Coming 2 America gets lost within the shadow of its predecessor; retreading past comedic gags in an empty fashion, losing the pulse of its humor to instead feel toothless.
Coming 2 America is available to stream on Prime Video