Eddie Murphy in Coming 2 America

COMING 2 AMERICA Sells Itself Short

Sometimes, usually around the Super Bowl, an enterprising corporation will entice a famous actor to reprise a famous role for 30 or 60 seconds at a time. Whether it’s Jeff Bridges briefly returning to The Dude or Mike Myers and Dana Carvey doing one more Wayne’s World sketch, these reanimations can light up our nostalgia receptors with warm hit of recognition. They’re also commonplace enough to diminish with every passing year. The ads themselves may technically vary in cleverness, but most of them amount to a momentary spark, quickly dampened–whether by lame jokes, depressing shilling, or simply the cruel visibility of time’s passage. Coming 2 America, a 33-years-later sequel to one of Eddie Murphy’s better comedies, is like watching that type of Super Bowl ad for 105 minutes, give or take. Imagine how much dampening that involves.

If anyone seems capable of providing enough sparks to keep the project alight, it’s Eddie Murphy, happy to pitch in with not just one signature role, but four of them. These days, Murphy using makeup and prosthetics to convincingly embody multiple characters in a similar movie is familiar enough to inspire parodies in other comedies. 1988’s Coming to America was the genesis of Murphy creating a miniature ensemble of different characters, putting his sketch-comedy and stand-up abilities to good use. It’s part of why the movie holds up so much better than several of his other signature ’80s hits, despite an uncharacteristically restrained Murphy in the lead. His Akeem, a sheltered African prince who looks for true love in Queens, New York, is gentler and more soft-spoken than the brash young men of Beverly Hills Cop or Trading Places; Murphy still gets to land big laughs as two older barbershop denizens (one actual barber, and one customer—an elderly Jewish man!—who never seems to be getting an actual haircut) and a low-rent soul singer fronting a band called Sexual Chocolate.

Akeem and the rest all return in Coming 2 America, as do the multiple characters played by Arsenio Hall, plus a new addition from Hall (though not Murphy). In fact, almost every memorable joke, gag, or line from Coming to America takes a curtain call in the sequel. The laughs, by and large, do not follow. Instead, there are smiles and titters–pleasant gestures of acknowledgment, because everyone in Coming 2 America seems to be having a very nice time.

The story gets caught between rehash and ironic reversal. Facing an ascension to King of Zamunda in place of his ailing father (James Earl Jones); a lack of his own male heir; and threats from General Izzi (Wesley Snipes), leader of the neighboring Nextdoria, Akeem is pressured to marry off the oldest of his three daughters to give Zamunda a next-generation king (and calm any Nextdorian notions of assassinating him to create a void of leadership). When it is revealed, in an improbable and faintly discomfiting retcon, that Akeem did father a male heir on his previous trip to Queens, he and his sidekick Semmi (Arsenio Hall) return to New York to seek out his secret son Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) to pull him into the family.

So, a brief rerun of the first trip, followed by a reversal: Akeem and Semmi bring Lavelle back to Zamunda, along with his brash mother Mary (Leslie Jones) and, eventually, his uncle Reem (Tracy Morgan), for a series of mild culture clashes as Lavelle learns how to be a prince. These clashes don’t really pop because, likable as Fowler is, Lavelle isn’t especially well-defined. He’s introduced gritting his teeth through the casual racism of a job interview (conducted by another SNLer, Colin Jost, who’s somehow stiff even when asked to play up the white privilege he naturally radiates), desperate to succeed yet unyielding to the white establishment. At other points, he’s written as more of a goofy hustler who needs to rise to the occasion. So what’s funny about Lavelle, about his point of view or personality? Coming 2 America isn’t really sure. Director Craig Brewer, taking over for the original’s John Landis, settles the movie into an amorphous imitation of the already vaporous Meet the Parents sequels, where Akeem and his wife Lisa (Shari Headley) bristle at Mary’s uncouth behavior and Javelle’s lack of regal bearing, while Semmi and Reem are more amusingly and directly combative because they just don’t like each other much. (In one uncharacteristically inventive gag, they appear on the same cable news show on a split-screen, only to reveal themselves as sitting mere feet apart.) Eventually, there’s another trip, back to Queens again, to shoehorn in some more references and cameos.

Throughout all this business, Coming 2 America never settles into a proper comedic groove. Brewer seems more interested in figuring out excuses for truncated musical numbers, a potentially joyful addition (and weirdly in keeping with the estranged Landis) muffled by his cuts. He stages some splashy entrances, only to have scenes trail off rather than building to a crescendo. Landis’s occasional clunkiness was offset by landing sight gags and funny lines, both in short supply here.

The sequel tries to tell a more dynamic story than its predecessor, where Akeem is so sweet and even-tempered that he doesn’t go through much change over the course of the movie. (He sets out to find true love, and his success doesn’t much depend on any kind of new realization on his part; there isn’t even really a lot of traditional conflict.) This older version of Akeem needs to come to an understanding of his children, trusting Lavelle’s love for a humble hairstylist and acknowledging the strength of his eldest daughter Meeka (Kiki Layne), who wants to defy Zamunda’s archaic rules. But the movie is far too diffuse to generate much emotion from its reheating of old Disney Princess conflicts. (In the first movie, Akeem was essentially Princess Jasmine, four years before that movie came out. Here, his daughter is effectively Princess Jasmine from the Aladdin remake.)

More importantly, it’s not especially funny. Murphy can still be an electric performer: Just over a year ago, he was delighting fans with an energetic Saturday Night Live hosting gig and his commanding lead role in Dolemite Is My Name (also directed by Brewer). Coming 2 America gives him a few opportunities to slap on the old makeup and riff a bit, but he spends far more time as Akeem, in polite damage-control mode. The movie puts him opposite some comic dynamos in Leslie Jones and Tracy Morgan, then gently pulls them apart; most of the actors feel like they’re performing in separate rooms. Jones is especially ill-served. On SNL, she could generate laughs playing herself at the Weekend Update desk with powerhouse force, so her lack of spark here is downright damning. She and Morgan acquiesce to the material and slip into the feel of a listless reunion, even though they weren’t at the original decades-earlier party.

Little about Coming 2 America is actively vexing. Like the original, it’s mostly good-natured; even the old men at the barbershop seem more enthusiastic about social change of the past thirty years, rather than ranting about those kids today. The movie’s eagerness to perform callbacks comes, I think, from a genuine desire to please, to share its presumed sources of audience delight. What it’s missing (apart from big laughs of its own) is a sense of time’s passage–a real connection to its past that extends beyond having one character say the line instead of another. There’s a glancing reference to Wakanda, the African utopia of Black Panther, and it hangs in the air, serving as a reminder of how little of Zamunda gets explored, confining its Black excellence to the palace grounds. Would it have bummed people out to make more than the briefest of references to the outside world?

In the end, Murphy sometimes has trouble letting go of his status as Hollywood royalty. The sequels Murphy actually made in the era of the original Coming to America often felt surly, even contemptuous, as if he hated the offers he nevertheless could not refuse. Coming 2 America has no such lingering bitterness. It barely has any taste at all, and its agreeability can’t fill out the emptiness of its gesture. Without shilling anything during the Big Game, Murphy, Brewer, and company can still sell the audience’s affection back to itself.