Did we need a sequel to Eddie Murphy’s fish-out-of-water 1980s romp Coming to America – with the word “to” transformed into a “2”? Will this trigger wacky sequel ideas for Bergman’s Face to Face, or Kurosawa’s To Live?
The original movie, directed by John Landis, had Murphy as the discontented Prince Akeem of the fictional African state Zamunda, obedient to his sonorous father the king (James Earl Jones), but yearning for a modern, independent-minded bride. So he travels to Queens, New York with his pal Semmi (whose name doesn’t get the obvious gag despite the nonstop sexual innuendo), played by Arsenio Hall. Posing as students, they encounter various latexed comedy characters – barbers, barbershop customers, etc, played by Murphy and Hall themselves – and Akeem finally finds happiness with Lisa, played by Shari Headley. A TV pilot in 1989 starring In Living Color’s Tommy Davidson was not picked up.
This new film, starring Murphy once again (directed by Craig Brewer and scripted by the first film’s credited screenwriters Barry Sheffield and David W Blaustein, with Kenya Barris) finds us in Zamunda, 33 years on, with Akeem and Lisa now a middle-aged prince and princess and the ailing king still on the throne. But having become the father to three daughters, Akeem is mortified to realise that Zamunda’s reactionary constitution will not allow him to make them his heirs. Then comes news that he has a son from a hilarious but until now primly forgotten one-night stand in New York with Mary (Leslie Jones). This unpromising boy Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), is working as a ticket-scalper for his dodgy uncle Reem (Tracy Morgan). So Akeem and Semmi once again journey to America to find Lavelle (and that barbershop) and awaken him to his glorious Zamundan destiny.
It is not clear how much attitudes have changed in Zamunda or indeed the US since 1988. The success of Wakanda in Black Panther means that a made-up African country isn’t regarded as automatically offensive, and its neighbouring state Nextdoria is quite funny. But Zamundan princes are still entitled to be “bathed” by comely young female attendants and indeed to have sex with them (although there are now male attendants for visiting female guests from the US). One such female groomer, Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha) is, however, a smart and professional-minded young woman and Lavelle looks like falling for her and not the vapid princess picked out for him. Akeem’s fierce daughters Meeka (KiKi Layne), Omma (Bella Murphy, daughter of Eddie) and Tinashe (Akiley Love) are there to provide the womanpower.
But the movie is as tired and middle-aged as Akeem himself; Murphy is oddly waxy and stately, and has no authority figures he can really play off. The film itself has some pre-emptive dialogue between Lavelle and Mirembe on the subject of whether sequels can ever work: Lavelle thinks the Barbershop franchise was successful, and there is some discussion of whether Queen Latifah’s Beauty Shop spinoff counts. There might also be another sly touch of self-reference when we find out that the McDonald’s-ripoff burger joint McDowell’s, which once employed Akeem as a humble floor-mopper in Queens, now has a franchise outlet in Zamunda, but the manager keeps getting copyright lawsuits from McDonald’s.
But the movie is basically as tired as Akeem himself, the waxy and stately Eddie Murphy, who has no authority figures to play off. Going 2 Africa is an odd journey. There is no way to say that things have changed, because it is stuck with the same old-fashioned/modern template: Lavelle is slovenly and disrespectful yet has a modernity and vitality that Zamunda supposedly needs, although its quaint old-fashionedness is what supposedly makes it funny, and there is no explicit talk of changing that sexist constitution. Going 2 Africa is an odd journey.