Some Hollywood stars lead a long and fruitful career spanning many decades. Some operate in the background and only get their dues as supporting players. Others burn brightly for a period and then eventually fizzle out, usually after a run of poorly-received or unprofitable projects. Eddie Murphy is someone who arguably belongs in this latter category.
First coming to prominence in the 1980s through his controversial stand-up routines, it didn’t take Murphy long to transition into making movies. His magnetic charisma and screen presence lead to a string of hits across the decade and well into the 90s. Films like Beverley Hills Cop, Trading Places, and the subject of today’s review cemented Murphy as a bankable star in Hollywood.
Although his success would fluctuate throughout the 90s, he continued to be a famous face in movies well into the 2000s. However, it was at this time where the wheels would start to fall off for the once dependable box-office draw. He shifted into family films in the late 90s/early 00s which also started off as a successful avenue with appearances in Mulan, Dr Dolittle, and most notably, Shrek. His career began a steep decline as the decade wore on, though, with notorious flop The Adventures of Pluto Nash unable to even break even in box office receipts. Although the mid-2000s brought him his one and only Oscar nomination (for Best Supporting Actor in Dreamgirls), it would also see the film that would stop his career dead in its tracks; the infamous Norbit.
What is most interesting to note about this is that all the elements that mad Norbit such a titanic mess are present in Coming To America. The difference is that these elements were still fresh in 1988. By the time 2007 rolled around, we’d seen enough of Murphy in prosthetics, playing multiple characters, but he was still stuck in that mindset, refusing to believe the 80s were over. Murphy was still an exciting presence at this time; his star hadn’t yet shown any signs of fading, which is the difference between success and failure.
Either way, I had never seen Coming To America before watching it for the purposes of this review. In fact, I haven’t seen much old Murphy’s classic’ films at all. I think I may have seen Beverley Hills Cop at some point, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. I decided to look at it now because the films’ long-awaited sequel is due to release on Prime Video next week, allowing me to catch up on what I’ve been missing.
Coming To America sees the pampered Prince Akeem (Murphy) from the fictional African country of Zamunda tired of his sheltered life and wanting to go out into the world to experience things for himself. On his wedding day, he persuades his father (played by James Earl Jones) to allow him to travel to America, where he can find a wife who he chooses, rather than one who has been trained at birth just for him.
This film must be quite highly thought of by a lot of people. After all, we wouldn’t be getting a sequel more than thirty years later if people didn’t like the first film. Sadly, I couldn’t really see anything special about it. It isn’t a bad experience, and it did make me laugh a few times, but I feel like it lacked a certain spark at times and generally could have flowed a lot better as a film. It has a fairly basic set-up, but one that lent itself well to fish-out-of-water comedy, but it didn’t do much to enhance its premise and ended up feeling a little flat.
I did like the character of Akeem, though. I was expecting a stereotypically entitled Prince-like character going in but was surprised by how warm and intelligent he is. He also seems to care for others, something that can’t be said for many of the people surrounding him, which made him a pleasant surprise as a protagonist. In films like this, I’d usually expect the Prince to go through an arc where he is taught humility because those around him demand it. Still, here the Prince seems to want to learn that by himself, and the people in his court would rather be a more aloof royal figure, which made for a nice change of pace.
So the character was there but where the film really falls down is in its plot. Not a lot happens in it. There are no real comedy set pieces to speak of. No big character moments show any depth in the world around Akeem; events just happen. They drift by unnoticed, and it feels like a vast empty space inhabited by one compelling character and a host of stock archetypes.
The best comedy scenes come in the form of the Barbershop scenes. I’d heard about these scenes before, so I knew them by reputation, but I didn’t expect them to provide the biggest laughs in the film. These scenes also provide the genesis for Murphy’s obsession with playing multiple characters; that trend starts here. Admittedly, this film is funny, with his and Arsenio Hall’s motormouthed barbers arguing about boxers providing my own personal highlight. As well as an incredible makeup job on Murphy to turn him into the Jewish customer, Saul (yet another character for him to play), which is so convincing you wouldn’t know if it was him if you hadn’t heard about it previously. While these scenes provide the biggest laughs, they are also partially to blame for what came after them in Murphy’s career, so whether you see them as positive or negative is a matter for debate. They’re undoubtedly playing off stereotypes (ones that will wear thin in the next few decades), but they reflect some of Murphy’s stand-up routines in a way, and at least they’re funny, which is more than can be said about Norbit.
Is there anything else I liked about this film? For sure. It’s always great to see James Earl Jones and listen to his voice which is so smooth you could spread it on your toast, and Akeem’s love interest Lisa is also fairly interesting. She’s strong-willed and independent, something that makes her break-up from Darryl (her then-boyfriend) in the film all the more satisfying. It should also be pointed out that it’s relatively ground-breaking how this film with a largely-black cast became such a success. It’s surprising to see from a movie in the late 80s, but not unwelcome.
Ultimately, Coming To America just didn’t feel like a film intended for me, and that’s fine. It did leave me cold, but not in an abrasive way, it just felt like a film that wasn’t supposed to be for me, and that’s maybe why it didn’t land so well with me. It’s over-long, too, further compounding its problems and making it seem like less happened in it. When you consider that I already thought it was uneventful, being over-long just really puts those problems into sharper focus.
I can see why it was popular, and Murphy is incredibly likeable and charismatic, but I just couldn’t connect with it as a whole experience. It has a few laughs but is just too slow and uneventful for me to recommend it. No matter how much I might have enjoyed watching Murphy in this role, he can’t quite save it on his own.