An interview with leading man Eddie Murphy describing the process of hiring director John Landis reveals more than anyone could expect for Coming to America, a relatively safe and disengaged comedy. The late 1980s produced some of the finest films to date, but it was here that the comedy began to falter. Long gone were the laugh-a-minute barrages of Airplane! or the inventive chaos provided by Time Bandits, and the seeds of Saturday Night Live were slowly beginning to blossom. While it would be a couple of years before audiences had a taste of Wayne’s World, the passing of the torch was beginning to take centre stage. Case in point, Coming to America does indeed feel like a farewell to Murphy’s imperium of the genre.
That is not to say Coming to America is the last great Murphy film. It is, however, the beginning of the end for his on-screen presence. He may have loaned his voice to the Shrek series, but up until very recently his career was in a rut. Dr. Dolittle and The Nutty Professor did him few favours. Nor does Coming to America, his role as Prince Akeem highlighting that he was not just a pivotal piece of royalty in the film, but reality also. His star had shone brightly, and the endearing nature of his craft was all but finished. There are those out there who return to the comfort provided by Coming to America, and rightly so, it is a fine bit of comedy with more than a couple brilliant lines of dialogue. One-liners that crop up out of the blue, some great dialogue from James Earl Jones and the occasional laugh is found throughout.
Unfortunately, though, Coming to America has little else to offer outside of those few moments. Why these leading characters find themselves working at a knock-off McDonald’s is a rather futile question, considering Landis and the cast don’t seem to care. They’re happy to riff on the few comedic tones available, falling prey to a rather predictable and thoroughly repetitive story of romance in the Big Apple. A relatively strong cast are no match for a plodding direction that relies on the shot-reverse-shot cliché and the mundanity that follows along with it. There is room for creativity, but Landis is afraid to showcase it, much like the rest of his films. He relies too much on the chemistry of the cast, all well and good if Landis can offer anything on top of that.
But he does nothing. Landis’ efforts are futile and weak, and they taint the product Coming to America could have been. With a handful of strong moments to carry through the more pressing plot points the film puts the spotlight on, Murphy and Arsenio Hall are a likeable duo, but even they struggle with a script that feels rather bereft of any hard-hitting humour. It is not that the film has aged poorly, the content within was dated from the start, but it is still good-natured in the hands of the right team. Murphy is fun, but not enjoyable enough to sit through the antics of Akeem for a hefty, plodding two hours. Patience for its miserable antics is simply a stretch too far in the case of Coming to America.