Let’s party like it’s 1989. Much in the way 2020’s Bill & Ted Face the Music arrived with Keanu Reeves on a cultural upswing, Coming 2 America, the sequel to the 1980s comedy classic Coming to America, comes on the heels of Eddie Murphy’s triumphant turn in Dolemite Is My Name. The feel-good vibes of a recent hit permeate the comedian’s return as African crown prince Akeem. His beaming smile rejoins with Arsenio Hall, John Amos, Louie Anderson, the McDonald’s knockoff McDowell’s, and the cast’s charming impersonations, while new faces also enter the fold. Taking place 30 years after Prince Akeem and his aide Semmi (Hall) first traveled to Queens, New York to find Akeem a bride, he and his wife Lisa (Shari Headley) now have three warrior daughters: Princess Tinashe (Akiley Love), Omma (Bella Murphy), and their oldest, Meeka (KiKi Layne). For a time, they’ve lived out a “happily ever after” ending.
But Akeem’s father, King Jaffe (James Earl Jones) is now dying, and he fears Akeem may be too weak of a leader to ascend to the throne. With no grandson to rule in the future, the royal line precariously hangs in the balance. Nevertheless, there is hope: During a drug-addled night 30 years ago in Queens, before he met Lisa, Akeem hooked up with a woman (Leslie Jones, leaning on her usual SNL shtick) and unwittingly fathered a child with her. The older, less independent Akeem now must venture back to America with Semmi so they can retrieve his son Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) and save their kingdom, Zamunda.
Craig Brewer, who previously directed Murphy on Dolemite is My Name, fashions Coming 2 America into a narratively thin and silly nostalgia trip that will appease older fans with a story that’s as much about rediscovering existing roots as planting new ones.
The script, written by Kenya Barris and Nutty Professor screenwriters Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield, rarely creates laugh-out-loud moments, except when King Jaffe decides to attend his own funeral. In a film that mostly leans on random cameos in lieu of tightly crafted jokes — a strategy that quickly overstays its welcome — the funeral scene hits on every level. Ruth E. Carter’s regal Afrofuturistic costumes are dazzling. The callbacks are measured. Murphy and Hall rekindle their onscreen friendship, to endearing effect. Throwback 1980s artists En Vogue and Salt-N-Pepa perform for Jaffe. An outlandish guest appearance from Morgan Freeman kills comedically. And Jones and Murphy share a touching scene that unapologetically pulls at the heartstrings.
Unfortunately, the later beats struggle to hit the same highs. As with Coming to America, Murphy and Hall play additional characters while disguised with heavy prosthetics, makeup, and fat suits. They include the roast-session barbershop employees, the fraudulent preacher Reverend Brown, and the tone-deaf singer Mr. Randy Watson, with a new addition to the cadre: Hall as the grotesque witch doctor Baba. A plot device who tells Akeem he has a “bastard son” living in Queens, Baba is a massive miss. As opposed to the other impersonations, which seemed to lampoon the stereotypes of Queens’ Black community in jest, Baba doesn’t share the same lovable origins. A gross other whose sole punchline is hacking phlegm, he’s a cheap character, and his price tag often shows.
The best addition to the cast is a game Wesley Snipes as General Izzi, the eccentrically ruthless leader of the country Nextdoria. Unlike Zamunda, an opulent kingdom untouched by colonialism, Nextdoria exhibits the signs of a nation clearly affected by civil war and strife. Take General Izzi dismissing a group of school children — one kid is named C4, and the others play with grenades. The juxtaposition between the two states makes for easy giggles, but it’s entirely too shallow. The subject of cultural and wealth differences between African nations might seem too heavy for a comedy. But considering how integral the dream of an African regality governed by exotic traditions colored the prior film, and the way Brewer and company open the door for such examination in the sequel, not taking that opening feels like a missed opportunity to connect a light-hearted story with tangible historical roots.
That’s the irony for a narrative that’s so concerned with the ways old roots can flower into new faces. In the hopes his bastard son will marry General Izzi’s alluring daughter Bopoto (Teyana Taylor), Akeem and Semmi return to Queens to bring Lavelle and his mother to Zamunda, where they receive an icy reception from Lisa and the rest of the royal family. Meeka particularly looks down on the interlopers — she’s trained her whole life to assume the throne, but cannot, due to a Zamunda law that prohibits women from ruling.
The unearned shine Lavelle receives from Akeem descends to the actors as well. Between Layne and Fowler, Layne is clearly the stronger presence. Not only does her combat training from The Old Guard appear whenever she wields a staff, the camera loves her. She makes every frame pop in an array of sumptuous, colorful costumes. The vulnerability she set forth in If Beale Street Could Talk translates here into a quiet strength. While Lavelle is getting so much to chew on, unfortunately, Layne’s character finds meager sustenance.
And as Lavelle, Fowler makes a bland lead. Take the trials he faces in passing a set of princely tests, or the love affair that develops between Lavelle and his royal groomer Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha). Neither of these storylines carry much weight, because Fowler’s heroic and romantic vibes add up to nil. The comedy is instead strongest when Lavelle is used to unearth Akeem’s journey.
In every sense, this is a silly dad movie, but it sharply charts the ways we assume our parents’ worst qualities as we age. The once-independent prince who traveled to America for love in spite of his father’s protests has grown up to be institutionally conservative, routinely bowing to Zamunda’s sexist laws, and disappointing both Meeka and his wife Lisa (who thankfully has so much more personality in this movie than in the original Coming to America). A mature Murphy, in some ways, makes the audience feel as though Akeem’s soul-searching mirrors Murphy’s. That sentiment probably stems from our familiarity with his career. We’ve seen Murphy rise from a young comedian with a childish, uproarious wit into a venerated performer and actor. We know the highs and lows of his career at the box office. We know he’s back, and we know he seems especially happy here.
Akeem rediscovering the person he once was, the fearless prince, warms this sequel. Murphy’s charm, his close chemistry with Hall, Snipes’ wily performance, and the resplendent costumes uplift this nostalgia trip. Coming 2 America could have easily been a disaster, and viewers who expect it’ll score the same laughs as its predecessor will be sorely disappointed. But approaching this more family-friendly comedy as a family reunion is rewarding. People who loved the original will likely find their affection for these well-known characters returning. Brewer’s Coming 2 America is never a waste: It’s familiar and fine, and an emotionally good story. And that’s enough for this return to Zamunda.