'Coming 2 America' Comes to Your TV

Eddie Murphy's latest, reviewed. Plus: Release dates in flux. What does it mean?

‘Coming 2 America’ Review

Coming 2 America has nothing as funny as the dead-dog joke in Coming to America.

A crooked slumlord played by Frankie Faison is showing Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) and Semmi (Arsenio Hall) a vacant apartment in Queens, the New York borough to which the African prince has fled in order to find true love. The apartment is open because the previous tenant, a blind man, was brutally murdered in it.  We see the tape outline of the body after the trio walks in, but there’s another shape there. You might miss it at first. 

Until Faison says “Damn shame what they did to that dog.” And director John Landis cuts to a close up of the outline, in the shape of a small pooch. The incongruity of the image—the outline of a man’s body; the outline of his cane; and the outline of his dog’s body—shouldn’t be funny. Murder: not funny! Dog-killing: especially not funny! As any studio head will tell you, you never kill the dog. And yet, it’s hilarious, in its own dark fashion. Unexpectedly mirthful. It elicits a guffaw.

Coming to America worked, and works, because it’s a fish-out-of-water comedy where much of the audience is also out of water, both in the fictional African nation of Zamunda and the very real Queens. The farce of an African prince trying to find true love in “the most common part” of America’s most bustling city—the locals stealing his luggage; the ridiculous women trying to sleep with him at a nightclub; the wonderful barbershop trio who spends their time trading ethnic gibes with a wizened Jewish fellow—resonates because he is both vaguely absurd and an audience surrogate while he traipses through Queens. (At least, such was the case for white-bread suburban types like myself.)

If you loved all that stuff, well, I’ve got good news for you, maybe? It’s back! Coming 2 America doesn’t have anything as delightfully unexpected as the outline of a dead dog, but it does have all the stuff you loved from the first movie, including a barking princess, Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall playing multiple characters—reverends, barbers, lounge singers; if you remember them, they’re here—and James Earl Jones.

The passing of the king of Zamunda (Jones) kicks things off. Prince Akeem and his loyal wife from Queens, Lisa (Shari Headley) have had three daughters in the preceding 30-some years since the end of the first film. This is a problem, since Zamunda’s king must sire a male heir, no matter that Akeem’s eldest daughter is perfectly capable of ruling and, well, you can probably see where this is headed. 

Akeem heads back to America to find his bastard, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), a streetwise ticket scalper with larger aspirations. He’s brought back to Zamunda in an effort to help unite the kingdom by marrying the daughter of the leader of Nextdooria, General Izzi (Wesley Snipes), an arranged marriage of the sort rejected by Akeem in the first film. As the action progresses, however, Lavelle realizes he’s in love not with the pliant Nextdoorian princess but headstrong would-be businesswoman Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha), and, well, you can probably see where this is headed.

Coming 2 America is not without its charms. Wesley Snipes’s emergence as full-throated comic relief—not only here, but also in 2019’s Dolemite Is My Name as a put-upon director—has been a pleasant surprise these last few years. Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall continue to have great chemistry, even if they don’t spend nearly enough time together onscreen. 

But the sequel is flat, its PG-13 rating undermining some of the comic raunch of the first film, and I can’t help but think it’s because Zamunda, where we spend most of this movie, isn’t nearly as zany a place as Queens in the 1980s. What an odd predicament for a fish-out-of-water comedy. I don’t know if Amazon got $125 million worth of movie out of this picture, but I do know audiences are better off watching it as a free streaming option than plunking down $12 for it at the box office.

Did this review help you decide what you’re going to watch this weekend? (Or, maybe, not watch?) Share it with a friend! They’ll appreciate it almost as much as me. (Almost.)

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If you enjoy this newsletter—or my podcasts Across the Movie Aisle and The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood—I think you’ll dig Sarah Longwell and Benjamin Wittes’s podcast about A French Village. Like Coming 2 America, the show is available on Amazon Prime. Watch it and then listen to Sarah and Benjamin! And make sure to sign up for Bulwark+, which is only $10 a month and ensures the continued existence of these, and other, fine aural products.

The Great Scheduling Game

Here are three different-yet-related pieces of movie news that give you some sense of the state of the business right now.

The first is that Alamo Drafthouse has declared Chapter 11. Notably, this is a reorganizational move rather than a liquidation move, and equally notably a new investment company has moved in to acquire a controlling stake. Alamo is using this to close some underperforming venues and rejigger their lease agreements. The hope is that this will give them some wiggle room while vaccination numbers go up and audiences decide they’ll feel comfortable in a place where they not only watch movies but also eat and drink entire meals of food.

The second is that the opening date for F9, the latest in the billion-dollar-blockbuster Fast and Furious franchise, is being pushed back. But only by a month, from May 28 to June 25. The studio behind the film, Universal, is also pushing the latest Minions movie back a whole year. This suggests to me that Universal is operating under two separate, but similar, premises. One premise is that things will be close enough to normal in America for a blockbuster series that does huge numbers overseas where things are better already (namely, China, Japan, and South Korea) that it makes sense to release F9 even at limited capacities. The other premise is that Universal is still wary of having two blockbusters in theaters at the same time, preferring instead to space them in order to take advantage of the fact that big movies will get multi-month runs in the largest auditoriums now.

The third piece of news: The pushback of F9 and Minions: The Rise of Gru did not spark yet another release-date exodus of the sort we saw repeatedly last year. Instead, Paramount and John Krasinski announced that A Quiet Place Part II will be released on Memorial Day weekend, taking the spot vacated by F9. There’s a bit of box-office jockeying here—the Quiet Place sequel is a smaller, cheaper movie, meaning it didn’t need to do quite the same level of BO as F9, meaning that seating limitations don’t impact it quite as badly—but that’s not what’s going on here, I don’t think. At least, not entirely. Rather, this is a streaming play. An earlier release date means the movie will be on Paramount+ earlier, as this is one of the movies that’s going straight to Viacom’s new streaming service after 45 days in theaters. 

And this is the ecosystem in which we live now. One in which a boutique theater chain can only survive by restructuring its debt and hoping movies come back, while the movies themselves jockey for position and try to optimize theatrical revenue versus streaming signups. It’s the same ecosystem that encourages Amazon pays an astronomical sum of money for a pale imitation of a superior film to get people’s attention for a single weekend. What mutations this ecosystem ultimately encourages remain to be seen.

Assigned Reading: ‘The Nolan Variations: The Movies, Mysteries, and Marvels of Christopher Nolan,’ by Tom Shone

If you are a student of Christopher Nolan, there’s an annoying paucity of information about him out there. Tom Shone’s excellent book has as its backbone a series of interviews with the director, his artistic influences, and how his early life as a dual resident of America and England helped shape his identity. 

And his interest in “identity” as a subject. I’ve always been fascinated by the ways in which the idea of identity sifts into his work, from Memento’s concern with our memories or our actions defining who we are to Bruce Wayne’s obsession with Batman and what he means to Gotham to the shifting identities at the heart of The Prestige to the macro, nation-state level of Dunkirk’s question about what Great Britain is and what might replace it in the future.

As Shone notes, two of Nolan’s biggest influences—Jorge Luis Borges and Raymond Chandler—had weirdly similar experiences to the filmmaker while growing up. Borges moved from his native Argentina to Europe in 1914, was stuck on the continent during the Great War, and moved back to Buenos Aires in 1921, finding “a city that appeared to him as an endless labyrinth, both weirdly familiar and utterly foreign.” Chandler split time between Chicago and London, unable to fit in properly with people of either nationality.

“I think most people, if you ask them, feel themselves to be outsiders in some way,” Nolan tells Shone. “When you have dual nationality, you’re quite clearly in that position, so I can relate to that Chandler feeling of being stateless—he was pretty negative about it, and I think I was when I was younger, as well. I’ve since come to reconcile the two parts of myself, but when I was younger, I used to look at everything from the outside, which is a very noirish point of view.”

The whole thing is quite interesting, and while it’s not always useful to dig into an artist’s upbringing to understand their work, it’s rarely of no use at all. And the director’s playfulness shines through, as when Shone suggests that, while he likes one of his movies, something in it doesn’t quite work, Nolan instructs the writer to “like it more unreservedly.” If you’re an obsessive like myself, you’ll tear through The Nolan Variations.