Sunday, March 9, 2014

Classic Comedy Worth Checking Out: Coming To America Endures!

The Good: Humor, Acting, Characters
The Bad: Very predictable plot structure
The Basics: Coming To America is a distinctly American comedy film that goes a long way to proving that Eddie Murphy has genuine talent as a comedic actor!

There are any number of actors who have IMDB pages that they should be embarrassed by; actors who clearly did projects that were to make a paycheck long after whatever talent initially got them recognized had caused them to fall out of favor in the collective conscious. Eddie Murphy no longer is a box office draw the way he was in the 1980s, but he has a history of taking risks with some of his film choices. One of the big films that illustrated Murphy’s talents as an actor – beyond simple sketch comedy characters – was Coming To America.

While it might be commonplace now in Eddie Murphy films (and arguably, its overuse is one of the reasons his films have fallen out of favor with audiences), Coming To America features Eddie Murphy in multiple roles using prosthetics and entirely different voices/demeanors. In addition to playing the protagonist, Prince Akeem, Eddie Murphy plays three background characters, most of whom are cleverly disguised through wigs, costumes and Murphy acting with his voice. In many ways, Coming To America is a collaborative work for Murphy as co-star Arsenio Hall plays four roles as well, the most recognizable of which is Akeem’s best friend and right hand man, Semmi. Murphy and Hall give impressive performances throughout Coming To America and are arguably the reason the sometimes predictable comedy has endured as an American classic for the past twenty-five years.

Prince Akeem is a pampered member of the royal family of Zamunda who, on his 21rst birthday, is introduced to the woman he is betrothed to. Sensitive and kind (and much more progressive than his father, the king Jaffe Joffer), Akeem tries to draw out his bride to be, but discovers that she has been raised and trained only to be thoroughly agreeable and desirable to him. Rejecting tradition, Akeem decides to go to Queens (New York) to find a woman who he might actually love and who might love him for his personality instead of being promised to him.

With his faithful friend and sparring partner Semmi, Akeem goes to Queens. There he allows the New Yorkers to steal most of his possessions as he assumes the mantle of a common man. At a beauty contest, he sees Lisa (who is not a contestant) and meets her father, Cleo McDowell. Cleo runs a fast food restaurant based off of, but competing with, McDonald’s and he gives Akeem a job there. While working doing menial labor at McDowell’s, Akeem watches how Lisa is treated by her boyfriend, Darryl. Trying to keep up the cover of a pauper, Akeem is thrilled that Lisa gets to know and appreciate him as a man, as opposed to a prince, even as Semmi rejects the approach which forces him to work below his station.

Coming To America is both hilarious and smart. For those who grew up in the 1990s or since, the image of the angry, gangster black American man has become the cultural image that those of us who grew up from the 1960s to 80s are pretty uncomfortable with; Coming To America features characters who are enlightened, articulate, and sensitive. Yes, Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, and writers David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein singlehandedly destroy the image and hype of the gangster image in Coming To America. Prince Akeem is smart, sensitive and anything but the misogynist that rap culture tries to perpetrate black people as.

The performances in Coming To America are homogenously good. Eddie Murphy is funny and the topical humor – New Yorkers constantly yelling “fuck you!” on the street – is perfect embodiment of the times.

Despite having a very predictable and familiar plot - Coming To America is just about a man who wants to be loved for who he is, who finds and falls for pretty much the first available, smart, beautiful woman who shows him affection for something other than his title – the film is smart, funny and endures very well. The performances and lines make the movie; the characters are charming or, appropriately, menacing and it’s fun to see people like Samuel L. Jackson pop up in early cameo roles. Ultimately, Coming To America leaves very little to be said about it; the simple story is kept fresh by wonderful lines and acting that make it an enduring, worthwhile, movie.

For other works with prominent black actors from Coming To America, please visit my reviews of:
The West Wing (John Amos)
A Family Thing (James Earl Jones)
Igor (Arsenio Hall)


For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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