Directed by John Landis
A young African prince wants something more from a woman than his country can offer so he comes to Queens, New York to find himself a real queen.
Prince Akeem of the wealthy African nation of Zamunda is chaffing at the pampered life just a bit. From walking on rose petals to not bathing himself to sitting very far from his parents while dining, it all just bothers him. Things come emotionally to a head when he encounters his arranged wife (Vanessa Bell) who has been trained since birth to please him. It is a silly moment of his bride hopping on one foot and barking like a dog and is probably the mildest of the silly moments in this entertaining comedy.
This was the first film where Eddie Murphy played multiple characters. After this movie it would become common for him to do so. Aside from Prince Akeem he also was: the Jewish barbershop customer Saul, the owner of that same barbershop Clarence, and member of the band Sexual Chocolate, soul singer Randy Watson. Personally have a hard time believing that it’s Eddie Murphy as Randy Watson. He just looks too different under all that makeup. It was an intriguing gimmick.
Aside from playing Semmi, Arsenio Hall joined in the makeup mayhem as: Reverend Brown who introduces Sexual Chocolate at the rally, Morris the barber, and a character called Extremely Ugly Girl whom Akeem and Semmi encounter at a local club after first arriving.
We have a strong cast of either (then) known commodities or who were (then) up and coming. Among the known were: James Earl Jones as Akeem’s father King Jaffe Joffer, John Amos as Akeem’s employer Cleo McDowell, the late Madge Sinclair as Akeem’s mother Queen Aoleon Joffer, Frankie Faison as the Akeem’s landlord, and Calvin Lockhart played Colonel Izzi who was the father of Akeem’s arranged with. The then rising stars were: Shari Headley as Akeem’s love interest Lisa McDowell, Eriq La Salle as Lisa’s self-absorbed boyfriend Darryl, comedienne Louie Anderson as McDowell’s employee Maurice, a young Cuba Gooding Jr. as a kid getting a haircut, and before Pulp Fiction made him a star we have Samuel L. Jackson as an armed robber at McDowell’s. An all-around strong cast right there.
This is a fish out of water romantic comedy with all that implies. Much of the humor is derived from Akeem and Semmi’s ignorance of America as well as the shock of being “common” along with the need to lie to everyone in order to maintain their cover. And this is very funny. You will not just have a smile on your face. You will actually bust out laughing at this movie. The mocking of Jheri curl via Soul Glo is great as is the running gag of McDowell’s/McDonald’s. The humor still holds up today.
I must bring something up here. One thing that bothers me today is the connected film universe idea. I am not bothered by having a connected film universe, but I am bothered by the way films connect these universes. Too often characters from other films show up in a film and take time from the title character. Connecting films does not require a long-term appearance of another character. A few lines or even a brief scene can link one movie to another. How does Coming to America connect to this? Why do I bring it up?
I bring this up because both Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy reprise their roles in cameos as Mortimer and Randolph Duke from John Landis’ previous Murphy film Trading Places. Randolph and Mortimer were the two men who made the bet concerning Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) and Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) in Trading Places. Here they appear as homeless individuals to whom Murphy gives cash. They use the character names and through one or two lines of dialogue connect those characters and this film to Trading Places. In a few minutes we have a much larger film universe without taking away from the story of the newer film. Why they cannot do this these days I do not know.
John Landis had a way with comedy. As ridiculous as things get nothing seems ridiculous in this movie. We have an African prince searching for a queen in Queens. This kingdom is rich to the point of the prince having gold plated toothbrushes and other grooming items. Scenes can have four or five characters but only contain two actors. The film should feel much more slapstick than it does. They go for broke yet keep a grounded feel. Maybe because this was a make or break film for the director is why it feels like he did not hold back in the silly. Despite a great resumé before this, Landis’ career was on a downturn following a few failures and repercussions from the Twilight Zone film. Coming to America saved it.
We have a great cast at the top of their game in a fantastic script that provides some real laughs and some fine performances. This is a romantic comedy with really good jokes that go for the laugh and great characters. What so easily could have been parody at times is a funny jab.
Coming to America is a classic comedy film. This is comedy magic right here. We got the right script, the right director, and the right star together to create a classic film. This is a must-see film.