- Rated R
- Buy the BD
Reviewed by Jason Newman
f all of John Landis's films, “Coming to America,” along with “The Blues Brothers” and “National Lampoon's Animal House,” has been canonized in the pantheon of comedy as a 1980s classic. Despite mixed critical reviews, the story of one prince's journey from the fictional country of Zamunda to Queens, NY was a box office hit, earning nearly $300 million worldwide and establishing Eddie Murphy's gift for mimicry and multiple characters that would play so prominent a role, for better or worse, throughout his career.
Murphy plays Prince Akeem, the son of King Joffe (James Earl Jones), the most powerful man in the African country of Zamunda. Not content to marry whoever his parents choose for him, Akeem, along with his servant Semmi (Arsenio Hall), decide to travel to America in search of a suitable bride. Where better to find a woman fit for a king, naturally, than Queens, NY. (Note: I live in and love Queens, Akeem, but that was definitely not the best choice for regal women.) To avoid the inevitable gold diggers should his real identity be revealed, Akeem poses as a janitor at McDowell's, a McDonald's ripoff (yet ironically a Wendy's in real life), where he falls in love with the owner's daughter.
Withmore serious, adult films like “Boomerang” and “The Distinguished Gentleman” lurking on the horizon, “Coming to America” marks the pinnacle of Murphy's purely comic phase of his career and remains the best showcase for his use of multiple characters (later utilized in “Norbit,” “Bowfinger,” “Vampire in Brooklyn” and the “Nutty Professor” series). At various times, Murphy plays a melodramatic soul singer, a bemused barber, and an astonishingly believable elderly white Jewish man (make-up guru Rick Baker was nominated for an Oscar for his work). Hall also displays the versatility that made his acting career skyrocket… well, get him his own show, most notably as the overly enthusiastic preacher Reverend Brown. (Also look for Cuba Gooding Jr.'s debut film role as Boy in Chair, Samuel L. Jackson as a shotgun-toting robber and a nice in-joke with Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy reprising their roles in “Trading Places.”)
It's troubling to read latter-day interviews with Landis talking about his experiences on set with Murphy. In contrast to the young, energetic and gracious Murphy of “Trading Places” (another Landis classic), the director paints Murphy as arrogant, mean, unprofessional, egotistical and obnoxious, and refused to work with him until the comedian personally requested he direct “Beverly Hills Cop III” six years later.
But Murphy's off-screen behavior doesn't diminish his versatility and perfect comic timing in the film. While this will always be an Eddie Murphy movie, James Earl Jones nails the role of an overprotective powerful father, John Amos has sniveling and sycophantic down to a science, and Eriq La Salle deftly plays Darryl, the greasy (in every sense of the word) guy dating Akeem's romantic conquest. The fish out of water theme is so easy to make cliché and stale. Yet Landis and Murphy crafted a classic that will always remain one of the finest moments for both men.