The good-natured “Coming 2 America” mostly plays the same notes

Coming 2 America Eddie Murphy & Shari Headley in Coming 2 America (Amazon Studios)

While the script is almost entirely a retread of the original, an engaged and enthusiastic cast makes it worthwhile.

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In our ongoing reckoning with pop culture of the past, 80s comedies have fared particularly poorly, with far too many jokes relying on racism, homophobia and rape. One of the few to make it past a reassessment mostly unscathed (though it relies on an even by then tiresome transphobic gag) is 1988’s Coming to America, Eddie Murphy’s cheeky romantic comedy that, in spite of perhaps his own best efforts, still remains funny and deeply likable. Much of that can be attributed to Murphy and co-star/BFF Arsenio Hall pulling a Peter Sellers and playing multiple characters, with an energy that Murphy would lack in later movies. That effort alone set it apart from other comedies of the same era.

Now, nearly 35 years later, the long awaited sequel Coming 2 America has arrived, and it’s…fine. Both to its benefit and its detriment, despite its present-day setting, it tries almost nothing new, relying largely on “remember this?” references to the first movie. It redefines the phrase “fan service,” but also everyone in it looks very happy to be there, and that happiness shines through.

If you haven’t seen Coming to America, fear not, the ample flashbacks will fill you in on everything you need to know. Virtually the entire cast, including minor characters, returns — even Louie Anderson shows up, still working at McDowell’s. All of the characters Murphy and Hall played in the original film, right down to Sexual Chocolate lead singer Randy Johnson, show up too, even if it doesn’t always make sense for them to be there (somehow the elderly barbershop patrons are still alive, more than three decades later). The plot is secondary to what feels like a reunion show highlight reel.

Prince Akeem (Murphy) remains happily married to Lisa (Shari Headley, who doesn’t appear to have aged a day), enjoying the splendor of Zamunda together. Faced with the impending death of his father, King Joffe (James Earl Jones), however, Akeem has a conundrum: thanks to an archaic Zamundan rule, none of his three daughters, despite being feisty and good at stick fighting, can be his heir to the throne. He also has a potential enemy in General Izzi (a delightfully hammy Wesley Snipes), the dictatorial leader of nearby Nextdoria, who tries to strong-arm Akeem into marrying off their children to each other.

The “good news” is that, after a drunken night with the brassy Mary (Leslie Jones) more than thirty years ago, Akeem has a son after all–the down on his luck Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler). Initially refusing to buck tradition, Akeem brings the unsophisticated Lavelle and Mary back to Zamunda to turn Lavelle into a suitable heir, even agreeing that he should marry General Izzi’s daughter. You can probably guess how this is all going to turn out.

The plot is secondary to what feels like a reunion show highlight reel.

Other than the occasional “look how the world has changed” gags about #MeToo and Lyfts, Coming 2 America feels a bit stale. Near-constant self-referential humor aside (almost every joke from the original, right down to the royal genital washers, gets trotted out), it initially relies on 80s-style “snobs vs. slobs” comedy. Lisa and her daughters constantly look at Lavelle and Mary like they just farted in front of them, while Mary calls Lisa an uppity bitch and steals her clothing. Then, abruptly, they all start getting along, and the movie becomes an even more standard feel-good comedy about staying true to yourself, and why relying on “tradition” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Screenwriters Kenya Barris, Barry W. Blaustein, and David Sheffield seemed determined to play it as safe as possible, to the point where the movie could have been set in 1991 or 2011, and it wouldn’t have made much difference.

Despite that, Coming 2 America is far too good-natured to completely discount. The jokes may be dusty, but all the actors rattle them off with enthusiasm. The soundtrack is heavy with 30 year-old pop songs, including Prince’s “Gett Off” and “The Humpty Dance,” suggesting that this is a movie for the old folks in the audience, and there’s nothing wrong with that. A sweet romantic subplot makes everything go down easier, the production values are lush, and the costumes of the citizens of Zamunda are gorgeously crafted. There’s more to like than dislike.

I’m a sucker for a movie that ends with the characters dancing, let alone one that has a blooper reel, and Coming 2 America has both. Would it have been better if the script had as much energy devoted to it as the acting? Sure. But, like Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, there’s a refreshing lack of mean-spiritedness to it that compensates for its shortcomings. Sometimes you just want a movie that fits like a pair of comfortable old shoes, and Coming 2 America fits that need.

Coming 2 America premieres on Amazon Prime Video March 5th.

Coming 2 America Trailer:

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