Coming to America

[6 April 2009]

By Stuart Henderson

PopMatters Features Editor

Eddie Murphy was apparently behaving like such a jerk during the shooting of this much-loved comedy that its director, John Landis, publicly referred to him as “the pig of the world”. Complaining about Murphy’s shift from a likeable, energetic funnyman during their previous collaboration on Trading Places a few years before, Landis remarked that this new Murphy had “the most unpleasant, arrogant, bullshit entourage,” and was now, finally, “just an asshole”. “It’s like an arctic wind” was how co-star James Earl Jones described the effect of Eddie’s appearance on set.

This was no longer the precocious rising talent of Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hours, but rather a megastar whose egotism and disrespect had begun to overshadow his genius. Although he haunts us still, appearing in one B movie after another 20 years later, Coming to America was his last good film. And, it wasn’t even that good.

Coming to America is, at the root, a series of sketches trapped in a tired little fairy tale. The plot is thin and generic – a fish out of water story with shades of Roman Holiday—but it does nothing with even the limited space it creates. To take the most obvious example: Eddie Murphy plays an African prince who, with his annoying valet (Arsenio Hall), heads to the New York borough of Queen’s (to look for his queen, you see) because he is dissatisfied with his prescribed existence in his lavish palace.

So an African prince leaves home for the very first time due to his feelings of alienation over the parochialism of his extravagant world, heads to America, to New York, and then doesn’t do any sightseeing at all? Never thinks – wow, skyscrapers and breakdancers and chestnuts roasting on an open fire? Basically, he gets over what must have been some intense culture shock pretty fast, without us getting to share in the action (which, of course, could have been hilarious: see Roman Holiday). Instead, there’s a lot of “what is this unfamiliar thing?” and “I will attempt to perform this strange American custom”. You know: Balky Bartokomous stuff.

Still, everyone loves a nostalgia trip, and this vehicle takes us all the way there. From big hair to shoulder pads, power suits to Jeri-Curl, and an omnipresent and delightfully horrific synthed-out soundtrack, this flick has a hungover Sunday on the couch written all over it. From the first moments you are transported to that weird decade of your (or, at least my) youth. I first saw it when I was 11 or 12 years old, and I still remember the whole “the royal penis is clean” gag vividly. It may have even been the first time I saw “boobies” on the big screen. This was a very big deal.

However, as a grownup killjoy academic, a lot of that stuff that was so awesome back then smacks as a little insulting today. This African nation (which is fictional) is unbelievably sexist and vile in its approach to women’s roles in society. The film asks us to be offended by this, but seems at the same time content to use it as an excuse to flash a lot of female flesh, and to develop a sexual fantasy world in which beautiful women drop rose petals at the feet of their men, wives train to become robotic servants, and there is a royal penis cleaner. Yuck.

But the film is best known as a showcase for Murphy’s versatility. Perhaps due to the insubstantiality of the plot, the movie takes periodic breaks from the action for a series of digressions featuring Murphy’s (and Hall’s) talents for comedic impersonation. They don heavy makeup (Rick Baker was nominated for an Oscar for his work) and, in some cases, disappear into their new persona. Unfortunately, each time this happens the film goes cold, as if someone had stepped in front of the camera and suggested: “Meanwhile, let’s take a listen to these goofy guys…”. None of these scenes serves to advance the plot, or to build characters that really matter – they just appear and recede. Of them, the barbershop sequences are all great fun – Murphy’s turn as an old cantankerous Jew perpetually defending Rocky Marciano is fantastic – but the extended scenes in which Murphy plays a vile pop singer for the band Sexual Chocolate are mostly lame.

Repackaged as part of the gaudy “I Love the 80s” series Paramount has asked us to spend money on for some reason – it’s not like these DVDs weren’t available before – this edition of Murphy’s last good film comes complete with nothing extra at all, besides a totally unrelated CD containing four songs, none of which are featured in the movie.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/72363-coming-to-america/