Coming to America

April 5, 2012

In his new movie, Coming to America, Eddie Murphy plays an African prince whose marriage is to be arranged by his parents. The king and queen, played regally by James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair, have chosen a beautiful girl who has been raised to serve the prince and obey him unquestioningly. But wait. Our hero halts the proceedings. He wants a woman with an independent mind, a voice of her own. “Only a dog is to obey,” he says.

How could it be. Has Eddie Murphy’s consciousness been raised? The megapopular actor-comedian has been criticized of late (especially for his aptly titled concert movie, Eddie Murphy Raw) for demeaning and/or adolescent attitudes about women. But in Coming to America, Murphy wipes away some of the sourness of those criticisms with a sweet and likable movie.

The concept here is a reliable one. A privileged man, in this case Murphy’s Prince Akeem of the mythical kingdom of Zamunda, resists the idea of an arranged marriage and pretends to be a commoner in order to find a wife. This premise is so familiar that we all know what will happen—he’ll romance the woman, she’ll find out he isn’t what he seems to be, they’ll reconcile by the end.

Prince Akeem and his sidekick (Arsenio Hall) travel to the likeliest place to find the bride of a future king: Queens. New York, that is, where they spot the daughter (Shari Headley) of a fast-food maven (John Amos). She’s a dream, says Akeem, and the two Zamundians land jobs cooking French fries just to be near her.

The set-up, which includes an opening sequence in a lavish studio version of an African palace, contains some workable comic situations, although this movie is decidedly low-key. Murphy and director John Landis (they previously teamed on Trading Places) avoid the boffo laughs of a Beverly Hills Cop in favor of a more gently amusing tone. (One of the funniest moments here is a Trading Places in-joke involving that film’s Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche.)

In some ways this is nice, and in some ways it means Coming to America isn’t as funny as Eddie’s usual. But the most agreeable result of this approach is that this film becomes Murphy’s first real romantic comedy, with smooches and sweet talk and slow dancing to a jukebox. It’s a role Murphy handles suavely, and he’s quite appealing as an innocent, a change from his hipster guise.

The film also provides the opportunity for Murphy and Hall to essay kooky character roles, under heavy makeup. Some of Murphy’s funniest moments come when he’s romping through these alternate incarnations: a loquacious barber, an ancient Jewish character, and a supremely over-the-hill singer who mangles a Whitney Houston song as he lunges about the stage in a powder-blue tuxedo, fronting his band, the Sexual Chocolate.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

It wasn’t the “earlier, funnier” Eddie Murphy, but it did mark a pleasant enough way to spend a summer evening at the multiplex in ’88. Landis and Murphy had a falling-out after the picture, although they later did Beverly Hills Cop 3, which didn’t work out for either man.