Coming to America
Written by David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein
Directed by John Landis
At the USA Cinema 57
COMING to America is the movie one always suspected Eddie Murphy could make if he would only put some thought and effort into it: a movie in which he doesn't try for laughs by coasting upon the established pan-offending loudmouth persona that has carried him through his last seven or so films, a movie that displays the range of his heretofore latent talents. In short, a movie in which he plays a character other than "Eddie Murphy," a movie in which he acts.
Yeah, he's not Olivier, but one only needs to think back to the diversity of characters Murphy played on Saturday Night Live (Buckwheat, Gumby, Mr. Robinson, Stevie Wonder and even Elvis) to realize how much he has wasted his thespian talents since then in most, if not all, of his movie roles. Murphy could--and still can--capture a character's entire life history in a few well-chosen gestures and phrases. Maybe this talent means that Murphy is more imitative than creative, but so be it--he is a brilliant imitator, which is why he was the ideal sketch performer on SNL.
HOW, then, to stretch a talent best suited to the five-minute sketch to fit a full-length film? Until now, the answer has been either to have Murphy simulate a variety of roles while actually playing a single character, as in his cop/action flicks, or, perversely, to have him appear onscreen as little as possible, as in Trading Places. The first answer has proved inadequate to sustain an entire movie--else guns and flash would not be necessary--and the second defeats the purpose of a film serving as the vehicle for a particular actor.
Coming to America's answer is much better and much more appropriate for Murphy. He does play a single character who assumes an additional role or two during the course of the film. But he also appears in a variety of sly cameos throughout the film: a garrulous old barber, a schmaltzy, talentless R&B singer and even (thanks to renowned make-up wizard Rick Baker) an old Jewish New Yorker.
Murphy's on/offscreen buddy Arsenio Hall, who also gained TV fame for his mimicry, does the same: in addition to his primary role in America as Murphy's sidekick, he plays a fiery preacher, another old barber and a horny redheaded woman. half the fun of this film is playing Guess The Cameo.
The combination of these cameos and the direction of John Landis (who directed Murphy and other SNL veterans in such films as Trading Places and Animal House and has also directed sketch anthologies like Kentucky Fried Movie) makes America a collection of short, funny vignettes, which happen to be linked through a continuing plot.
OH yes, there is a plot to this movie. Murphy plays Akeem, surprisingly liberated prince of the tradition-bound fantasyland of Zamunda, who travels incognito with his friend Semmi (Hall) to look for an equally liberated bride in America (specifically, Queens, N.Y.). The plot provides for a familiar satirical set-up: naive, good-hearted alien exposes by juxtaposition the follies of American customs. The plot is about as predictable as an Orioles game; it exists only as a framework on which to hang the gags.
And the gags come fast and furiously, not as frenetically as in Airplane!, but almost. The breakfast table in the Zamundan palace is so long that Akeem talks to his parents at the other end through an intercom. Hanging in a Black businessman's home is a copy of a famous Manet--only the girl in the picture is now Black. Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche appear briefly as the Duke brothers, the heartless business kingpins from Trading Places, but now, they're panhandlers. Most of the gags are hilarious, which is good because they are the meat of this film.
Everything above and beyond the gags and sketches is dressing. Even the characters are secondary. Sure, Akeem is the main role, but he is so nice that he's too saintly to be real. He is funny mostly for his ignorance. In one scene, happy Akeem offers a morning serenade to the city of Queens, which responds with a chorus of "Fuck you," to which Akeem, not understanding, offers his own joyous "Yes, fuck you!" This is about the only time Murphy swears in the film. Akeem is a departure for Murphy, and to his credit, he pulls it off.
Fortunately, Akeem has Semmi as a foil. Hall's Semmi is a smarmy, false opportunist, but like Akeem, he's a caricature. Together, Akeem and Semmi are like adult versions of Wally Cleaver and Eddie Haskell. Their squabbles are amusing, but Hall and Murphy's cameos are funnier and more interesting than their primary roles.
James Earl Jones shows an unexpected comic side as Akeem's royally out-of-touch father, who delivers such lines to his pampered son as, "I tied my own shoes once. It is an overrated experience." Shari Headley, as Akeem's dream queen, is pleasant, but her character is as upright as Akeem, which means that she is funny only because she is ignorant of Akeem's true identity.
Though Coming to America's emphasis on SNL-style comedy may be a step backwards for Eddie Murphy, it is still a step out of the rut, since that kind comedy works better for him than anything else he's done. Though not a work of comic genius, Coming to America is a funny, funny film that should be good enough to encourage Murphy to continue to try something different.