“The royal penis is clean your highness.”
This movie’s legacy has been filled with so much controversy that somewhere along the way the film’s magnificent heart and hilarious charm have been almost forgotten and ignored. Coming To America is of course most famously remembered for Art Buchwald’s lawsuit, which claimed authorship of the movie’s story. Buchwald won a percentage of the films profits, but that was only the beginning of the story. In one of those cool Hollywood we have balls of steel maneuvers, Paramount sent Buchwald an accounting statement for the film which argued that although Coming to America had grossed over 200 million dollars, it had somehow failed to yet break into the black. We’d love to share our profits with you Art but there are none – – see ya! You’ve got to love the fact that they could not only argue that with a straight face, but actually expect to get away with it. It was sort of like claiming there isn’t any gold in Fort Knox. So it’s pretty obvious that there are a lot of great lawyers around town these days and not just Robert Shapiro and Johnny Cochran.
That’s unfortunate because Coming To America is to me the confirmation of Eddie Murphy’s promise as a creative actor, comedian, mimic, and movie star. Personally, I have never really put much credence into Buchwald’s claims. He may have come up with the story’s basic idea, which is the least original thing about the film (basically fish out of water wonders will she still love me when I tell her the truth?), but one would be pretty hard pressed to see much of his influence on the final product. After all, Coming To America is by far Eddie Murphy’s Blackest film. There are only really two white characters in this movie and apparently Eddie Murphy’s view of the white world is that it looks a lot like him and Louis Anderson. He does an old white Jewish guy here ten times better than Billy Crystal on his best day in a make up and personality extravaganza that would have half the world arguing over whether it was really him or some guy that they grabbed out of a Saturday morning temple service.
Additionally, you can see the embryo of the film’s humor all over Eddie’s concert film Raw from the previous year. Coming to America is really just an inversion of Eddie’s claims in Raw that in order to find a woman who truly loved him for more than just his fame and his bank account that he would have to find some Bush Woman from Africa.
This was really the first movie that let Eddie Murphy be Eddie Murphy. Early in his career he was always forced to pair off with white actors. This was most hilariously apparent in the amazingly awful Best Defense, where Eddie and his co star Dudley Moore never even meet on screen. The only amusement anyone ever got from that film was in Eddie’s stand up act where he announced that he was just overwhelmed by the amount of money they offered him but excited because they gave him a sex scene. He then went on to carry Beverly Hills Cop and its sequel, but both of those films needed to play him off of the white world. The world of Coming To America is most likely the closest thing to the real world of a young Eddie Murphy, and a magnificent comment on Murphy’s status as a movie star coming back into that community.
This is by far his best effort as a romantic leading man. There is no doubt in my mind that Eddie can do just about anything he wants to as an actor, but his biggest problem with playing a Romantic lead has always been his amazing comic talents. Why make the funniest guy in the world into a straight man. It’s sort of like using a nuclear bomb as a paperweight. It works fine, but sort of seems like a waste of resources. Eddie solves this here by surrounding his romantically regal Akeem, with an assortment of the best comic performances in the history of make up. Essentially Eddie agreed to toss in any number of his improv characters into the film’s side margins in exchange for the chance to be Jimmy Stewart everywhere else.
Martin Laurence has made a fortune by picking up the ball where Eddie and his make up left off, but he has never even approached Murphy’s level of artistry. Martin Laurence always looks like Martin Laurence in goofy clothes and make up. Eddie Murphy creates completely different living and breathing people. Arsenio hall dons a lot of make up here too, and it’s actually to his credit that he more than holds his own. In fact, a lot of people here do. Coming To America boasts great comic creations by James Earl Jones, Frankie Faison, Madge Sinclaire, and especially John Amos, who seems overjoyed to finally be able to chew up space in a comedy without having to toss all the good stuff to Jimmy Walker’s Kid Dyn-o-mite. The guys in the Barber Shop even refer to Murphy’s Akeem as Kunta Kinte in a nod to Amos’ most famous role. Just for good measure Samuel L. Jackson shows up in yet another one of his masterful ninety second performances as a shotgun wielding hold up man.
Coming to America tells the story of Murphy’s Prince Akeem. His life is pretty damn good. His father is the King of Zmunda, which is a wonderfully realized place. Essentially it’s the only existence in the world likely to be more lavish than Eddie Murphy’s real life. Zmunda is apparently the last place in the world where the King has absolute power and loads of dough. The people treat Eddie and his family as if they were religious icons. Eddie lives in a giant palace with elephants, zebras, and giraffe’s roaming outside of his bedroom window. Each morning he is awakened by a string orchestra, he has three hot women who toss rose petals down before his every step, brush his teeth, and coolest of all bathe him naked. There has been a woman raised for the sole purpose of being his obedient wife. When Murphy first meets his bride to be he cowers in disgust as she agrees to hop up on one leg and bark like a dog. James Earl Jones as the King spots this encounter and gives Eddie a loving grin as if to say “Isn’t it cool to be us!”
Akeem talks his father into a forty day trip to America. Jones wants him to “sow his royal oats”, but Eddie has seen enough Hollywood romances to want a “woman who will arouse my intellect as well as my groin”and heads to Queens with Arsenio Hall to find her. Hall plays Semmi, Murphy’s servant, as sort of a pampered, cranky Eddie Haskell style fop. For Murphy pretending to be a poor African student is a great adventure, while Hall’s Semmi is aghast at his surroundings and longs to be rescued by his old life. Murphy finds his true love Lisa (Shari Headley) working for her father John Amos’ McDonalds clone of a restaurant. He can be found secretly stealing from their operation manual and shooing away their lawyers every day at his family run McDowells. Murphy decides to woo Headley as a poor man and winds up having to compete with with Eriq La Salle’s creepy rich Prince of the Gheri Curl as a fast food employee who once rose goats. It’s pretty hard to believe that anybody on the bottom of the fast food chain would be able to woo a rich educated woman, but Murphy makes it appear easy. His Akeem is so decent, regal, and loving in everything he does that he makes it hard to believe he would ever rather be anything than what he is. Their romance is eventually topped off with a triumphantly ecstatic accented version of Jackie Wilson’s “To Be Loved”. It’s a moment of such exultant happiness that even the howling slurs of an annoyed Queens barely causes him a moment of doubt.
Alongside this very likable romantic tale is an uproarious comedy mostly filled up by Murphy and Hall. The guys in the barber shop are amazing, but my favorite make up character is the overweight Rick James impression Randy Watson and his band Sexual Chocolate, who stops by to sing “The Greatest Love of All” at a black awareness rally. Other great gags include the return of Trading Place’s Randolph and Mortimer Duke and Vondie Curtis-Hall, as the Zmundan hot dog vender, whose bowing excitement at meeting the prince raises some questions about Murphy’s real identity. Check out also Elaine Kagan as an amazed telegraph employee, whose level of the absurd doesn’t seem to include Arsenio wiring James Earl Jones for half a million dollars in spending money.
Eddie Murphy does everything in this movie successfully, which was probably a bad idea because it made him think that he could write and direct Harlem Nights, but Coming To America remains his most personal work and a great argument that a movie can be decent and wholesome despite having enough profanity to make Bill Cosby lose sleep. A perfect argument for Eddie Murphy as decent guy even without the fame and fortune. Not that he’s planning on giving it back though.