Eddie Murphy’s 1988 romantic comedy Coming To America was, like so much of the star’s filmography, a showcase for his remarkable character work. Drawing from his Saturday Night Live days, Murphy flexed not only his indelible charm as a leading man but also his chameleon-like flair for performance, parading a roster of over-the-top personalities under pounds of prosthetics. His one-person ensemble only accentuated an already engaging story of a man and a woman determined to find love on their own terms—a tale that reached sweet finality when Prince Akeem Joffer (Murphy) and his newly wedded wife, Lisa McDowell (Shari Headley), rode their bridal chariot into the sunset.
With its fairytale ending, the story left little room for continuation. And yet here we are, 33 years later, back in the fictional country of Zamunda for a long-promised sequel, Coming 2 America. This time, Akeem is a newly minted king in search of his rightful heir, and a charming love story is traded out for a rather convoluted follow-up about challenging tradition. If this new effort manages to accomplish anything across its nearly two hours of running time, it’s the confirmation that 30 years might be too long to wait to pick up an arc—especially one that ended on a happy, conclusive note.
Coming 2 America sticks almost too closely to the beats of the original film, from its many callbacks (some fun, others wholly unnecessary) to its structure. From the onset, viewers are transported back to the utopian palace of Zamunda to reunite with the loyal staff, including Akeem’s royal companion and friend, Semmi (Arsenio Hall, who plays even more side characters than Murphy does this time around). A quick look at palace life is followed by a royal decree from Akeem’s now-dying father, King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones), who insists that his son find a suitable heir to the throne. Naturally, tradition dictates that the honor can’t be bestowed upon any of Akeem’s three bright, patriotic daughters, including his oldest, Meeka (KiKi Layne).
No need to worry: Akeem has a long lost son in Queens named Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), who—in a retcon of the original’s plot facilitated by some bad Irishman-style de-aging effects—was conceived with a local woman named Mary (Leslie Jones) during the bar-hopping first night of his visit to America. (To put a finer point on this: Akeem was essentially date-raped—a choice seemingly made by the creators to preserve the former prince’s purity and devotion to Lisa. This is an irresponsibly huge pill to feed any audience if you only plan to make it a lackluster running gag.) The revelation sparks Akeem and Semmi’s brief return to Queens to retrieve the now-30-year-old prince. If Akeem fails to transform his son into a worthy heir, his kingdom could fall prey to a military coup by General Izzi (Wesley Snipes), leader of the rival, bordering county of—deep sigh—Nextdooria.
From the start, director Craig Brewer, who worked with Murphy and Snipes on Dolemite Is My Name, makes his commitment to the source material clear, for better but more often worse. The story, as presented by screenwriters Kenya Barris, Barry W. Blaustein, and David Sheffield, is still basically just an opportunity for Murphy to cement his legacy as a showman, and to be fair, his proficiency with multiple characters has barely wavered. (It’s one of this sequel’s biggest pleasures.) But that devotion gets a little suffocating when the focus remains largely on recalling every little moment from the original film, from a visit to the lively Queens barber shop to cameos from the most minor of supporting characters. The pile-up of old, vaguely memorable lines and guest appearances makes this second effort seem deeply redundant, while the new material mostly flounders due to a lack of energy or purpose. Layne tries her best to inject some sincerity through Meeka, a strong-willed young woman and a fiery combination of Akeem’s passionate love of life and Lisa’s determination to follow her own heart. Unfortunately, Coming 2 America isn’t really about her, which speaks to the creators’ short-sightedness.
The sequel’s strongest suit lies in the opulent costume design by Ruth E. Carter, who takes full advantage of the story’s move to Zamunda by shirking modesty in favor of elaborate silhouettes, vibrant prints, and ornate accessories. There’s also a noticeable lack of dead animals draped over the royal attire—a favorable update in today’s more conscious climate. But Carter seems to be the only creative force present with a forward-thinking approach to this world. Despite a number of seemingly self-aware lines about cultural differences, misogyny, and unnecessary sequels, the jokes are firmly stuck in the ’80s and largely elementary (especially when it comes to the ill-fitted ones about Africa from writers whose only cultural frame of reference appears to be The Lion King). And while it’s still somewhat fun to witness comedic giants like Murphy, Hall, Snipes, and Tracy Morgan play off of each other, this film is undoubtedly tailored only for its male talent.
A supporting cameo from Garcelle Beauvais tips Brewer, Blaustein, and Sheffield’s hands early on when she is returned to her previously limited (and totally silent) capacity as a servant of the court, despite having maintained a much more elevated portfolio of credits over the years. It’s endemic of a movie that illustrates a general lack of respect for the women that occupy this franchise universe, many played by actresses who have been staples of Black entertainment for decades. The film’s most egregious missteps are made at the expense of Vanessa Bell Calloway, reduced to a humiliating, literally barking madwoman for no reason beyond a half-assed reference, and Jones, who is at least allowed her share of funny lines—modest recompense for being repeatedly compared to a beast for laughs. At least she appears to be having more fun than most of the rest of the cast.
To her credit, Jones might have the right idea here. With a premise that feels like such a step backwards for the young prince who was once inspired to follow his own path, this weak retread leaves viewers clinging to a few fun moments scattered throughout. For a film with a plot that ironically revolves around Akeem’s son learning to find his own unique route to greatness, Coming 2 America—with its endless callbacks and Easter eggs—seems all too ready to rely on nostalgia. It’s clearly meant to function as a celebration of the original film’s enduring legacy. Fans should just watch that movie again instead.