Length: 116 minutes
Release Date: June 29, 1988
Directed by: John Landis
Stars: 3.5 out of 5
What happens when a price born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth gets bored with his obnoxiously luxurious life and decides to travel to a faraway land to find a girl who will love him even if he is a poor nobody? Director John Landis and actor Eddie Murphy come together to create a hilarious laugh-riot that takes pot-shots at the rich-poor divide and the conflict between sticking to traditions and following your heart. With commendable performances by the likes of Frankie Faison, Louie Anderson, John Amos, Vondie Curtis-Hall, and Samuel L. Jackson in cameos, “Coming to America” is ranked as one of the most popular comedies made in the 1980s.
Like other popular comic successes, this movie’s cast of actors gifted with superb comic timing overshadows its standard and predictable plot. The movie begins with an introduction to the routine, boring, and obnoxiously snazzy and ultra-luxurious life of Akeem Joffer (Eddie Murphy), prince of fictitious African nation country Zamunda. Surrounded by pretty ladies in various states of undress at all times and living in a magnificent palace with his parents King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) and Queen Aeoleon (Madge Sinclair), the prince is utterly discontented with his monotonous life.
His irritation peaks when he is informed by his parents about his impending marriage to Imani Izzi (Vanessa Bell), a spineless awe-struck girl who has no qualms in hopping on one foot just because she has been ordered to do so by her husband-to-be. Akeem comes up with a ridiculous excuse to travel to America and, with his parents’ consent, manages to escape his gilded cage with trustworthy aide Semmi (Arsenio Hall).
Knowing that this is his best chance to find true love, Akeem decides to conceal his royal origin and lands up in Queens in New York, posing as an ordinary and poor foreign student hoping to make it big in America.
Overriding Semmi’s misgivings after their initial brush with the rough life of ordinary commoners, Akeem gamely continues his efforts to find a normal girl who will love him even if he is a poor nobody. Desirous of earning money like ordinary people do, Akeem starts working under Cleo McDowell (John Amos) in his burger outlet named, rather irreverently, McDowell’s. The obvious trademark violation serves as a running gag throughout the movie, with Cleo coming up with hilarious reasons to explain why McDowell’s is not similar to McDonald’s.
Akeem finds the girl of his dreams when he runs into Cleo’s daughter Lisa (Shari Headley), a carefree girl who impresses the hero with her firebrand nature and independent streak. After a tumultuous introduction, Akeem makes an impression on Lisa by fighting off a robber, the character of Samuel L. Jackson in a loud and impressive cameo, only to discover that she has a boyfriend named Darrell (Eriq La Salle). Not surprisingly, Darrell turns out to be a spoiled brat who is perfectly content in living off his father’s business empire.
The romance develops, and Akeem decides to reveal his true status when his parents, shocked by an urgent request for money by Semmi, land in Queens, complete with their ostentatious and over-the-top lifestyle. The revelation leads to a breakup and a sad trip back home for Akeem before things turn out just fine in a happy ending.
The movie stands out for a couple of reasons. First, this was the first time Eddie Murphy tried his hands at playing multiple characters in a single movie. Great acting, deft direction, and incredible makeup enable the most impressive sequences in the movie to shine through, and there were scenes where multiple characters played by Murphy and Hall interact with each other.
Second, the movie had genuine funny gags performed admirably well by the competent cast. While opinions differ, many say that this movie represented the peak of Eddie’s career in comedy movies. Coming together after “Trading Places,” the director-actor duo re-created their magic and made sure the movie was a fun watch despite a shaky premise and stereotyped plot.
Third, the movie, in its own subtle and inimitable manner, dealt with the vibrant richness of an ordinary life as compared to the boring and tedious life filled with luxury and riches. The king’s decision, prompted by his wife’s tart remark, to ignore tradition and give in to his son’s desires creates a feel-good atmosphere at the ending.
On the whole, “Coming to America” is proof that smart direction, good acting, and out-of-the-box thinking can convert a standard script into an entertaining and enjoyable movie.