I think I’ve finally failed the test. I don’t find 80’s humor all that funny or clever. After The Great Outdoors underwhelmed me and now this, I’ve figured out that it’s not them, it’s me. Going into Coming to America – a film with a very strong following even to this day, not to mention the pedigree in front of and behind the camera, I was almost giddy with anticipation. Not in my deepest darkest thoughts did I ever think that I would laugh only once during the whole film. Yes, a single laugh. While watching Coming to America. It’s unbelievable.
And yet I must say that the humor is very broad. Few of the jokes surprise, in both wit or delivery. From the beginning when we meet Eddie Murphy’s Prince Akeem and are treated to scenes detailing his outrageous lifestyle I knew something was missing for me. The most interesting thing director John Landis does in these scenes is let the camera linger as if waiting for the audience to get the joke. We already got it John! Eddie Murphy doesn’t go to the bathroom alone, and he has people throw flower petals in front of him wherever he walks – you making a point out of showing it in scenes that linger way too long does not make it any funnier.
Of course, Akeem is tired of a life that has been arranged for him, from his orchestral alarm clock to his marriage, and so embarks on a trip to where else but Queens, New York. With his servant/sidekick (Arsenio Hall) in tow, he will look for a bride-to-be who will be his equal in marriage, not just a woman trained to serve his every wish.
As the duo arrive in Queens, the predictable hijinks ensue. At this point I was getting ready for the real funny stuff to start happening. Instead I got an over-indulgent barbershop sequence with Murphy and Hall playing all the different characters in the shop under heavy make-up and prosthetics, courtesy of Rick Baker. As a precursor to Murphy’s multiple performances in The Nutty Professor, these sequences serve as an interesting cinematic touchstone, but they are not funny and are completely superfluous to the plot of the film. They only pad out the running time and indulge Murphy’s and Hall’s desires to show off their abilities to morph into totally different characters.
From here on out the plot is very predictable and I stopped looking at the film as a comedy and more as a message movie. I must say that this is where it is most successful. The film’s anti-materialistic stance is strengthened by Murphy’s charisma and by the fact that the script does not bludgeon us with the message, instead letting it sneak up on the audience. It’s an almost subtle way of treating the subject matter and it is impressive considering how broad the rest of the film is.
Unfortunately, it was not enough for me to make it totally worthwhile. Yes, there is a certain nostalgic element to watching this film, but not as much as other films I’ve covered in this series. It simply has not aged well. C+
The film was a huge box office hit and talks of a sequel have been going on for 30 years strong now. It’s Oscar nominations for Best Costume Design and Best Makeup have been forgotten, but I think are worth noting. We rarely see this type of film being nominated for ‘technical’ awards anymore and now that Rick Baker has pretty much retired, one wonders when we’ll see it happen again.
The film is frequently sighted as prime example of Murphy being able to command the box office while mostly relying on his charm. But Murphy didn’t have an acclaimed comedy again until 1996’s The Nutty Professor. Similarly, director John Landis’s filmmaking career peaked with Coming to America. I’d like to think that both Murphy and Landis look back with fondness on the year 1988 – a time when they were both the go to guys for box office comedy hits.
Next I will watch Beetlejuice starring Michael Keaton! See you then!