There was no bigger comedy force in the late 1980s than Eddie Murphy. His two, now legendary, stand-up gigs Delirious and Raw are still best-sellers and he produced some of the finest comedies of the decade. Films such as Beverley Hills Cop and Trading Places helped to really establish him as a top comic actor. In 1988 he teamed up for a second time with another big-hitter from the decade, John Landis and together they produced Coming to America a smash hit at the box office, taking over $288m from a budget of $39m.
Coming to America is the story of a young African Prince Akeem (Murphy) who travels to America to find a woman he loves, thus avoiding an arranged marriage to a woman raised to obey his every command. He is accompanied to theUSA with his friend Semmi (Arsenio Hall) and together the two men give up their money and possessions to live a life of near-poverty in Queens, New York. They work at a local fast food restaurant called McDowell’s, which is where Akeem meets the daughter of the shop’s owner and slowly falls in love.
Unlike many of Murphy’s later role, his performance as the wide-eyed Prince with a strong moral core is actually surprisingly grounded. He instead leaves the over-the-top extravagance to Arsenio Hall’s Semmi. So good is the chemistry between the two of them, it’s astounding that they never capitalized with future films together. They each play numerous roles throughout Coming to America, allowing them to stretch their comic range, and the barber’s scene in particular is stand-out with them portraying old men who constantly bicker about boxing. These days, the barber shop would’ve received their own spin-off, but instead their scenes remain fresh and hilarious even numerous years after Coming to America was released. It is a shame then that Murphy would go on to use the same idea in many of his future movies, but never to the same effect.
Like so many comedies, the more you see it, the more you come to love it and Coming to America has almost reached exalted status among people born in the 1980s. Yet there are problems, as Landis fails to capitalize on the wealth of talent in front of him, instead phoning in directorial duties. The stale plot never offers anything new or original, which restricts Coming to America from really taking flight. Luckily there’s more than enough individual laughs to make it more than worthwhile.
The actual plot of Coming to America is a riff on the ‘Prince and the Pauper’ and is completely predictable throughout. Yet it’s kept going with excellent performances from Murphy, Hall and James Earl Jones (playing Akeem’s father) and there are more than enough laughs to make this an enduring classic from an era that produced so many. Better paced than its predecessor Trading Places, but without the acerbic edge, Coming to America may just be one of the best comedy films of all time, and has more than enough to keep you entertained throughout.