I think enough time has passed that I can safely admit that while growing up my family had a descrambler in our house. We used it to record movies off cable networks we otherwise wouldn’t have and watch Mike Tyson fights. Often, when I had the chance, I’d watch whatever movie there was on pay-per-view, even if it was something I’d seen several times before. One of my oldest memories is spending an entire day watching alternating showings of Twins and Coming to America. Granted I was too young understand much of what made Eddie Murphy’s comedy so groundbreaking, but I still watched that movie three times in a single day, and enjoyed every second of it. In many ways it was Eddie Murphy, along with Steve Martin, who shaped my earliest understanding of comedy.
It wasn’t until thirty years later, when watching Coming to America with a few friends, most of whom weren’t even born when descramblers were a thing people had, that I understood how Prince Akeem’s search for his equal also shaped my earliest understanding of gender equality. Better still, enough time had passed that I’d forgotten many details, letting me be surprised at punchlines and quips all over again. Dated as it was, I still enjoyed every second of that viewing, not as a nostalgia trip, but as a genuinely funny, raucous comedy with a surprising amount of heart and way more profanities than I remembered. Even as I changed, or as society changed, the film was exactly the same. And no sequel could ever change that.
What Murphy and Martin taught me was that comedy comes through deviating from our expectations. When Akeem hollers “Good morning, New York!” we expect him to be greeted with a cynical “F*** you!” but we don’t expect him to enthusiastically scream, “Yes! F*** you too!” As one in an ever-increasing series of recent sequels/rehashes of decades-old comedies (see also Zoolander 2, Bill and Ted Face the Music, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, and even the rumored Triplets) the trouble for Coming 2 America is that what was unexpected thirty years ago is not unexpected now. We’ve seen a lot of these same setups, bits, and punchlines before. These sequences are no longer deviating from expectation. They are exactly as we expect. It’s not surprising (or, we could say, unexpected) that Coming 2 America’s funniest bits come when it isn’t trying to imitate scenes from the original. The pity is that there are so few scenes which don’t in some way try to parallel, allude to, or flat-out recreate those from 30 years ago. Not to mention re-contextualizing the previous film into a possible sexual assault. These diminishing returns are perhaps never more obvious than when Murphy refers to himself as “the MFing king.”
To its credit Coming 2 America looks great. The costumes are even better than the first, there is genuine hilarity in some of the staging, and the differing color palettes characterize each nation and nationality, from Murphy’s vibrant Zamunda to Wesley Snipes’s militant Nexdoria. Although much more limited than before, Murphy and Arsenio Hall retain a great chemistry, most visible when the two are unrecognizable as the returning Mr. Clarence and Morris. Leslie Jones’s broad energy perfectly clashes with the stoic African kingdom. Jermaine Fowler is solid if not as charismatic as his on-screen father. Anyone who didn’t already know KiKi Layne from If Beale Street Could Talk should know her now. And as with his previous collaboration with Murphy in My Name is Dolemite, Wesley Snipes steals every scene he’s in. These performances, along with several strong cameos, make it clear that the cast is not lacking for talent nor reverence for the original. Some scenes that don’t work are saved by one character making quick remarks or a button at the very end. Further, the film’s funniest scenes demonstrate a sharp wit for contemporary issues, from white privilege to workplace conduct, proving that the sensibility behind the film has progressed even when the film itself has remained trapped in the early 90s at the latest.
As with many films, what is good in Coming 2 America only makes the bad all the more obvious. By so often tying itself to the original film, the performers in this installment also feel tied to the past rather than being allowed to explore their own space. This may be why Snipes, being one of the few characters with no previous parallel, becomes such a standout while Fowler and his chosen queen struggle to match the chemistry of Murphy and his. There is little sense of play when the cast is limited to redos of sequences that are so iconic they’re closer to being required than unexpected. The royal washers was a great throwaway gag three decades ago. It doesn’t need a five-minute follow-up ending in the same punchline, no matter how much Leslie Jones revels in it.
There is also a lack of focus when it comes to Coming 2 America‘s story. The original had a very simple premise focusing Akeem and Seemi’s search for a queen in New York, with every subplot and supporting character adding that story, allowing room for riffs and bits that have since become legendary. Coming 2 seems to fluctuate between focusing on Akeem, his newly long lost son Lavelle, and even his longer serving daughter Meeka, with individual subplots taking extended detours that don’t pay off. What’s more, none of this shuffling in narrative focus leads to anything surprising. The film develops and ends exactly as expected, complete with a celebration scene that feels more contrived than anything which came before it. It’s great when audiences celebrate a film, including Coming to America, but it’s a lot less meaningful when a film celebrates itself. However, if this is the last time we get to see the great James Earl Jones on screen, at least the king was given a worthy goodbye.
When I say that Coming 2 America is an unnecessary sequel, I’m not saying that the film shouldn’t exist or that there isn’t some enjoyment in it. Rather, looking at Coming 2 America as unnecessary can help to separate this second film from its predecessor. Akeem of Zamunda and Lisa of Queens long ago received their happily ever after. Their story is complete. Nothing that this new film does could ever change what happened in the first, nor does any sequel retroactively remove or taint our enjoyment of the previous film (that only happens when we learn that the stars of our favorite films, like Usual Suspects or American Beauty, were sexual predators). Despite actually trying, Coming 2 America doesn’t change anything about the first film. While never coming anywhere near its original, Coming 2 America is fine. It’s far from brilliant but the cast is good and there are a few laughs.
More disturbing than the recent trend of unnecessary sequels is the idea that somehow new films “ruin” old ones. They don’t. A bad sequel doesn’t “ruin” a great original anymore than a bad new burrito ruins every previous burrito, or a bad new Nas album ruins Illmatic. The original is still there, and while your memory of it may be different, or your tastes may have change, the product itself has not been altered from the first time you saw it. The only thing “ruined” is the audience fantasy of some untouchable perfection that never existed in the first place.
We as an audience need to understand that filmmakers are not out to “destroy” the things we love. An all-female Ghostbusters doesn’t erase the original films. Rey, Finn, and bitter, withdrawn Luke don’t remove Star Wars from existence. Unnecessary sequels aren’t created to somehow damage the worlds, characters, or stories that we love.
They’re created to exploit that love for profit.