Coming 2 America Barely Tries, and Fails Anyway

content-header__row content-header__hed” data-testid=”ContentHeaderHed”>Coming 2 America Barely Tries, and Fails AnywayAt least Amazon waited until after Black History Month to release this sad sequel.

March 4, 2021

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

It’s not as if we didn’t think it could happen. Sequels are often cynical and deflated, money-grabbing and rote. But the look in Eddie Murphy’s eyes throughout Coming 2 America—a faraway, evacuated gaze—is still stunning to behold.

Those same eyes had flickered, then suddenly lit up in Murphy’s underrated 2019 film Dolemite Is My Name, also helmed by Coming 2 America director Craig Brewer. Dolemite casts Murphy as a wily performer and aspiring director, an old dog risking it all for his last shot at glory. In the Coming to America follow-up, though, he’s an aging king resting happily on his laurels, and fading mercifully into the background. The resulting film is an equally complacent effort, dressed up with confounding ornament—mediocre hip-hop musical numbers, anti-climactic action scenes, cliché-ridden class commentary, and a dash of girlboss feminism, Black Girls Rock edition.

Coming 2 America postulates that King Akeem of Zamunda (Murphy), now a father to three highly capable daughters—including KiKi Layne as his eldest and most impressive, Princess Meeka—may have fathered a bastard son who could be the heir to the Zamundan throne. Don’t worry: our king is not a cheater. He was simply taken advantage of by a boisterous, working-class, dark-skinned Black woman named Mary Junson (Leslie Jones), just before he met his light-skinned, middle-class wife Lisa (Shari Headley) in Queens. If you imagined Coming 2 America might thoughtfully address the colorist casting choices it made many years ago, well, you might have to wait for Coming to Am3rica. Jones, as always, is funny as hell; she makes much of a sorely underwritten part that hinges on the underlying idea that by virtue of her background, character, and looks, she shouldn’t be allowed through the pearly gates of a fictitious African empire.

Yet even if you generously accept its creative laziness, Coming 2 America is startling in its utter incompetence. Where the original committed wholeheartedly to its own absurdities, contrasting a concocted African community against a more intimately rendered African-American one, the follow-up uses half-baked internet-era discourse as a substitute for meaningful or even entertaining cultural commentary. Signature gags have both Murphy and Arsenio Hall playing multiple characters who try desperately to inject the film with a sense of whimsy. Jermaine Fowles, playing Murphy’s illegitimate son from Queens, Lavelle Junson, struggles to strike the right tone between dramatic searching and humorous detouring. And who can blame him? In one moment, he’s battling nepotism sons at big city job interviews; the next, he’s fighting a lion on his long-lost father’s savannah. The script makes no effort to meaningfully connect these experiences beyond a few boring, on-the-nose conversations between Lavelle and his royal Zamundan hairdresser (Nomzamo Mbatha).

Alongside Coming to America writers Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield, Black-ish’s Kenya Barris wrote Coming 2 America’s baffling script. It does come off a bit like uninventive television, the memeable afterschool special-esque conversations of Barris’s shows mixed with some Black Twitter-inspired digs. Perhaps what made the original film work was how much room a straightforward plot left for moments of genuine inspiration. The set pieces were simple, and the premise even more basic: An African king must find a wife, so he goes to Queens. The hilarious details, from McDowell’s restaurant to the extreme indulgences of royal life in Zamunda, were reflections of Murphy and Hall’s sensibilities as comedians, and the way Black and American cultures had in turn influenced them. Coming 2 America reverses this work, imposing a comedic tone onto the film’s talent rather than creating the conditions that let comedy arise organically.

The upshot is an exhaustingly unfunny film that tries to save itself through a streak of unrigorous self-criticism. Layne, as Princess Meeka, spends the entire film side-eyeing from the sidelines. Clearly she should be queen, benevolently lording over Zamundans and introducing liberal reforms that will benefit women in the country—not her half-brother from Queens! This stale, predictable girlboss narrative is an especially depressing way to underutilize Layne’s talents, which shone in frame after frame of Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk. All she’s asked to do is be perfect, if slightly impertinent, as Princess Meeka sulks over the country’s sexist laws, because they affect her ability to be held on a pedestal by more than just her own family.

In the end, Coming 2 America is a strictly commercial affair, and not even one you can happily turn your brain off to. The musical numbers are akin to whatever ends up on the cutting room floor of a Lil’ Bow Wow album; Teyana Taylor’s seductive dance number is overedited to the point of incomprehensibility. The only spot of scenic redemption lay in Black Panther costume designer’s Ruth E. Carter’s gowns—beautiful gowns indeed.

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