Friday, 11 November 2016

Retro Review: Coming to America (1988)

Coming to America
Cast: Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, James Earl Jones, John Amos, Shari Headley, Eriq La Salle, Samuel L. Jackson 
Genre: Romantic Comedy 
Worldwide Box Office Gross: over $280 million 

Plot: An extremely pampered African prince travels to Queens, New York, & goes undercover to find a wife who he can respect for her intelligence and wit

'Classic Fairy Tale & Rom-Com Formula With An African & African-American Twist'

Much like 1984's Moscow on the Hudson saw Robin Williams play a Russian immigrant, with Coming to America, fellow comedic actor, Eddie Murphy plays an African immigrant, or to be more precise a prince as a fish-out-of-water who sets across America, in search of his bride-to-be. 

Compared to Trading Places, this film appears to be a lot broader in scope and Eddie here is a lot more reserved, as his off-the-wall humour and antics are toned down for once and he allows the story to take shape. He plays the role of Hakeem straight with occasionally amusing moments, courtesy of him playing a range of characters in a barbershop. Unlike his parents, Hakeem - who was born with a spoon in his mouth - doesn't enjoy being an heir to the throne that much and rather he wants to take care of himself than to let others do that for him. As he grows older, he becomes restless and after meeting an arranged bride, he is left unimpressed by her and leaves Africa for America. 

Coming to America has all the essential ingredients that make for a romantic comedy: boy meets girl, then they fall in love, ''meet cute'' scenario, lovable loser Hakeem and lovely, sweet love interest, Lisa. But the plot with the prince having to find a bride to marry is all the more common sense in my eyes, as one of the tropes of romantic comedies is for two people to fall in love and they perhaps, but with this case, get married in the end. This is a fairy-tale story coming to life, with a prince going out of his way to find that one woman who he wants to share his life with. 

1988 was a pretty good year for Eddie; in the wake of Beverly Hills Cop 2, The Golden Child, Raw, his antics and characters, buoyed by F-bombs and adult humour - pretty much-incited derision from critics - and yet was lapped up by audiences, the release of Coming To America was a drastic change for Murphy. He shed the street-wise, fast-talking, motor-mouthed and yet at times, the coarse image of his previous characters in Axel Foley & Reggie Hammond in favour of clean-cut, African royalty and romance and love. An African Prince in Hakeem, who has respect for women and who is respectful and kind-hearted. Although this film has its share of F-words, thanks to Murphy's other character roles he assumes here. 

Hakeem lands a job working at a fast food joint, McDowells - a knock-off of McDonald's - without revealing to anyone else he is a real prince by posing as an overseas student, and later he ends up falling for the owner's daughter, Lisa who is already attached to boyfriend, Darryl (ER's Eric La Salle). Hakeem pursues Lisa as a nice guy, and of whom has her best interests at heart, whereas Darryl comes across as someone who tries too hard to win a girl's affections, rather than to be an easy-going guy and simpleton. Yet later on when Lisa discovers that Hakeem is not all he seems to be, it slightly derails his chances at winning her back, although, by the end of the film, Hakeem makes amends for his deceptions. 

The cringe-worthy moment of this film was the soul-glo theme tune - as corny as it was, it made me cover up my ears. As great as this film is, there are however some notable pitfalls: there were periods where they weren't many laughs to be found; two exceptions being one scene where Hakeem and his friend meet some girls in a bar, with Arsenio Hall in drag! & in another when Hakeem is singing loudly outside, as he makes his way home and the neighbours tell him to shut up and all kinds of stuff! 

Eddie Murphy plays the Prince in Hakeem and is ideally cast, as well as his other turns in make-up/prosthetics (a trait of which he later repeated in Norbit and The Nutty Professor movies). The part where he has his horrible ponytail chopped off, was reminiscent of Bowfinger when Bobby Bowfinger yanks his fake ponytail when he enters a restaurant. Arsenio Hall does a great job as Hakeem's right-hand man, Semmi. The performances all-round are ace (likewise James Earl Jones's booming voice doesn't go unnoticed); Shari is a focal point of the movie and the story (which was created by Eddie himself) wouldn't have held up so well, if she hadn't been a part of it, and neither if the audience didn't buy her as a convincing love interest. But alas, her character Lisa and Eddie's Hakeem worked well together, as well as individually. As was the direction and the movie is well-paced. There is a cameo from Samuel L. Jackson as a robber who tries to hold up the fast food joint. The gags are not over-the-top, but still remain funny throughout. 

Although it was directed by John Landis, Coming to America definitely feels more of a Black feature film more so than Trading Places, - which in many respects felt more tailor-made for wider audiences, - with a predominately African American black cast. It definitely tackles the rich/poor divide issue as seen through the African-American/Black experience, whilst it poses the dilemma of choosing whether to do what makes your family happy or to just follow your heart and putting your happiness, first and foremost. As the movie progresses, Hakeem realises his happiness is the most important thing and with that, he and Lisa eventually fall for each other. The romantic elements are well conceived. 

What makes Coming To America stand out from so many of the obvious with rom-coms is not the rich guy meets poor girl plot device - which was later revisited in Pretty Woman -, but that sudden culture clash and how it, in turn, brings two people, who clearly love each other, together, rather than for it to keep them apart. And the way the film goes about this story-line is excellently well done.  

Final Verdict:

Whereas opinions will vary, many people have said that in terms of comedy movies, Eddie Murphy had hit his peak with this effort- I for one would concur. For me, that happened with The Nutty Professor, and not this film. Is Coming To America one of Eddie Murphy's finest and best movies? Yes. Is Coming To America underrated and overlooked as one of the best romantic comedies of all-time? Without hesitation, absolutely. 

Having said all that, if I had to choose between this film and Boomerang, I would opt for Boomerang - mainly as the characters are a lot more fleshed out and developed, and it has a better cast. 

With one simple plot, Coming to America ultimately exemplifies a comedy that addresses the theme of a boy and a girl falling in love, transcending beyond cultural and class boundaries. 

Sure, some of you may find Eddie's role to be a tad too comfortable and may not enjoy him being a nice guy, but as much as I love wacky Eddie Murphy, it's nice once in a while to see him being more reserved in his performances and not always shouting obscenities, all of the time. Whilst still being the good guy. 

Coming to America is another untypical romantic comedy that is still as good today, as it was over 25 years ago, as a tale of true love prevailing in the end. 

*Score last updated: 15 April, 2017


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