At 25: “Coming to America”

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June 29, 2013 by billysparrow


Coming to America

Released: June 29, 1988

Starring: Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Shari Headley, James Earl Jones, John Amos, Madge Sinclair

A few minutes into “Coming to America” (a beginning that, it should be noted, drags on a bit too long), I decided that it was my all-time favorite Eddie Murphy movie. Then I realized that, to the best of my recollection at the time, I had only seen one other Eddie Murphy movie. As it turns out, I was wrong (I remembered “The Nutty Professor” but forgot “Bowfinger” and “Showtime,” at least one of those quite understandably), but, still, most of Eddie Murphy’s movie career has passed me by.

I suspect that this is largely because I’m a racist. Or else it’s because my heavy movie-watching days fell right at the end of the strong run of Murphy’s film career. You decide. But in support of the latter argument, I was a little too young for “48 Hrs.,” “Trading Places,” and “Beverly Hills Cop” and never caught up (thus letting “Another 48 Hrs.” and the sequels to “Beverly Hills Cop” blow right past me), and after “Coming to America,” I just had no interest. And still don’t, which means I’ll probably never see “Boomerang” or “Vampire in Brooklyn.”

So, all that is to say that my declaration of “Coming to America” as my favorite Eddie Murphy movie is a bit hollow. And my belief that it is my second favorite Arsenio Hall movie (trailing “Amazon Women on the Moon” by a healthy margin) also doesn’t come off as a ringing endorsement. But, hey, I like it just fine, largely on the strength of a few classic scenes and some good laughs.

The obvious high points of “Coming to America” come in the My-T-Sharp barbershop scenes (spoiler alert: most of the characters in the barbershop are either Eddie Murphy or Arsenio Hall. I know; I just blew your mind, right?). It is both a testament to Eddie Murphy and an indication that this movie was made 25 years ago that My-T-Sharp didn’t get its own movie immediately after this was released. If this movie had been released this century, there would have already been at least one theatrical sequel and several straight-to-DVD sequels just about the goings-on at My-T-Sharp. And though this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, the fact that they were one and done makes them even more enjoyable in this (and note Cuba Gooding Jr. as the kid getting a haircut).

And as great as Murphy and Hall are, my favorite barbershop guy is Sweets, played by Clint Smith, who, according to the Internets, was a friend of Murphy’s. Whenever Martin Luther King comes up in conversation, I almost always hear Sweets saying “Dr. Martin Luther the King.” (I should also point out that I think of other things more related to Dr. King’s noble pursuits.)

In fact, as much as “Coming to America” is a vehicle to show off Murphy and Hall’s acting/character abilities, it’s the secondary (and sometimes even tertiary, or whatever comes after tertiary…quadrary?) characters that elevate “Coming to America” to being an above-average movie. James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair (as King Jaffe Joffer and Queen Aoleon, respectively) hit just the right notes as Prince Akeem’s (Murphy’s) parents, and John Amos and Shari Headley (as Cleo and Lisa McDowell, respectively) both settle in nicely to their roles. Amos’s pratfall up the stairs as he tries to keep Randy away from the King and Queen toward the end of the movie, which looks like it might have been unintentional, is particularly great (alas, I cannot find it on YouTube, so go watch the movie and keep an eye out for it).

But respect must also go to the predominantly stone-faced Paul Bates (as Oha, seemingly the head of the Zamundan royal servants). His delivery of “She’s Your Queen-to-Be” is easily one of the highlights of the early part of the film, which, as mentioned, was a little bit of a slog for me (though hats off to John Landis and whomever else might have thought to fade from the Paramount logo directly into the landscape of Zamunda at the very beginning of the film).

And, of course, no mention of the minor characters in “Coming to America” is complete without discussing Samuel L. Jackson’s appearance as a would-be robber at McDowell’s, which, due to far too many years of fast-food eating, I can clearly spot as a made-over Wendy’s (that is now scheduled for demolition). Language NSFW, which you should just assume whenever there is a lead-up to a clip featuring Samuel L. Jackson.

And, despite my lack of Eddie Murphy film watching, I knew enough to recognize that the bums Akeem gives money to were Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy (star of the Fat Boys “Disorderlies” movie!), who were Mortimer and Randolph in Murphy’s “Trading Places.” Though the scene didn’t have particular resonance with me, I do like when movies throw in deep callbacks like that. So, hey, right on!

All of that is not to take away from the work of Murphy and Hall. Aside from doing a good job as Prince Akeem and Semmi, respectively, and their aforementioned greatness in the barbershop, they also do fine work as two other briefly seen characters. Hall’s Reverend Brown, while good in his first scene, has his highspot at Cleo’s party later in the movie, thanks to a reference to a TV character.

It’s a similar little touch that makes Murphy’s Randy Watson (ably backed, of course, by Sexual Chocolate) so memorable for me. The intro and lack of applause is good and the terrible rendition of “The Greatest Love of All” is undeniably entertaining, but the mic drop and subsequent hand gestures as he leaves the stage are really what bring it home.

So, there it is: my favorite Eddie Murphy movie (favorite Louie Anderson movie? Probably, though I remember liking “The Wrong Guys”). I wouldn’t say it’s one of my all-time favorite comedies, but as I look at the list of comedies coming up in the “At 25” series, I feel like I’m going to be very grateful for the laughs it gave me.

It could be a long summer.


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