'Coming to America': THR's 1988 Review
On June 29, 1988, Paramount debuted the R-rated comedy Coming to America, from Eddie Murphy and John Landis, in theaters. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below:
Eddie Murphy's latest Coming is likely to leave the wreath-bearers, the frantic faithful, the crowd herders and the legions of line-waiters in numbed, disbelieving disappointment. With the superstar comic in a positively perfect role as an African prince come to New York to find a wife, Coming to America seems a can't-miss premise and pairing.
Distressingly, the film flops into the blandest of sitcom formats, never realizing its regal potential. Except for the effervescent Murphy, this very common comedy doesn't have much more to strut than your average network rerun. Box office will undoubtedly be gargantuan at first, but Paramount's gold mine has been short-shafted by Coming to America's dull-witted screenplay and some surprisingly close-to-the-vest direction from John Landis.
Coming to America is the filmic equivalent of using a Maserati to go to the corner grocery store — Murphy's colossal comic gifts and Landis' countercultural sensibilities are largely wasted, never pushed to the floor in this idling, curbed comedy.
The movie peaks early, as blazing stars soar above the Paramount insignia mountain: A pulsating, heaving rendition of "Mbube (Wimoweh)" rumbles over the opening credits, as the camera moves in over the lush jungle to the ostentatious royal palace of Zamunda. From this lofty and sparkling beginning, the movie is downhill all the way.
The introductory scenes do not belie America's vast promise. In the remote African kingdom, Prince Akeem (Murphy) rises in rose-petaled splendor to string music and caresses of his beautiful, scantily clad bath-women. Even by the standards of his palatial life, the day is a special one for the pampered prince — it's his 21st birthday, and a curvaceous bride (Vanessa Bell) has been chosen for him.
No deadbeat dupe, Akeem has a dream: He wants to fall in love with a woman who loves him for what he is, not for who he is. To his credit, the up-and-coming monarch won't settle for a trained wife. Such renegade royal behavior is, not surprisingly, dismissed as youthful restlessness. His father, the King (James Earl Jones), believes his hormonal-hyper son wants to sow some wild oats and agrees to let Akeem travel to New York for 40 days. For Akeem's royal lackey and trusted sidekick (Arsenio Hall), the trip looks like a great "40 days of fornication."
The sharp but unworldly king selects Queens as a natural site to select a bride — he's looking for a queen, get it? Although that grungy borough may be inherently funny (if you don't have to live there), the site selection peaks as a one-line verbal gag. Coming to America misses its vast potential by languishing in a locale that should have been a throwaway laugh, or, at most, a short interlude. By using this humdrum setting as the comic core, Murphy is stripped of his opportunity to bounce off of a worthy cultural opponent: Murphy vs. Manhattan, like Murphy vs. Beverly Hills, would have been a hilarious, escalating standoff. The wild and rife potential for social satire is completely dropped at the start.
Worse even than the Queens locale and the opportunity to turn Murphy loose in Manhattan is, well, the fact that good old Queens itself is slighted. The screenplay is marooned in sitcomland, and the juicy, urban neighborhood stuff itself is also scraped clean. Yes, there are some crazy pieces crammed into America — Murphy and Hall in their multi-roles do a running black barbershop bit that is good and nuts — but this comedy is generally tame and sappy.
Writers David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein's mushier-than-white-bread script milks only the most obvious laughs from the outlandish situation — what we get is homogenized Eddie Murphy, drained of his kinetic comic charm and smiling sass.
The plot itself is pathetic: In America, Akeem spots a feisty and beautiful young woman (Shari Headly) at a neighborhood rally and tracks her down to her father's business, a copycat McDonald's. Akeem lands an entry-level job at the fast-fooder, and quickly falls in love with the working woman. His hyperactive sweeping does not go unnoticed by the apple of his eye, but the comely young woman is romantically involved with a rich and glossy pretty boy (Eric LaSalle).
Akeem is, nonetheless, smitten. What the personable prince sees in this middle-class bore is, well, obviously in the eye of the beholder. The ardor of his affections, as written by Sheffield and Blaustein, is not particularly remarkable: Her taste in men is moronic; she lives at home with her parents; and her job totaling up burger receipts seems to tax her abilities.
No getting around it, while the script completely misses as a social satire, writers Sheffield and Blaustein have botched the romance part of America as well — there's no kindred spirits/soulmate urgency to their romantic pairing. Who cares whether these two get together or not? In fact, one hopes for the prince's sake that they don't.
Rivaling the inept screenplay is John Landis' cornball direction, which includes a TV season's worth of reactive cutaways to an ugly poodle. Landis' work is so cloying and flat, one gets the impression that he'd thrown in the towel before the first shot. There is little of the Landis imprint on this one; none of his distinguishing dark comic bile surfaces in this gooey laugh groveler.
On a production level, at least, Coming to America gets top marks. Richard McDonald's garish production design is marvelously out-of-orbit no matter what ZIP code you're in. Deborah Nadoolman's costumes are dazzlingly dizzy: National Geographic stitched with musical comedy. — Duane Byrge, originally published on June 24, 1988.