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Cinema: The Taming of Eddie Murphy COMING TO AMERICA

4 minute read
Richard Schickel

Akeem, Crown Prince of mythical Zamunda, is in most respects a splendid young fellow: nice looking, well-spoken, equable and compassionate in spirit. His only deficiency is a certain literalness when it comes to geography: he thinks the logical place to look for a future queen is a place named Queens. You know — the New York City borough you try to drive through without stopping on the way into Manhattan from the airport.

As a premise for propagating the royal line in a benign African monarchy, it is as farfetched as it is far-darting. As an excuse for propagating a few laughs, it turns an honorable tradition upside down. Princes and princesses from innocently backward realms used to turn up regularly in movies, looking for romantic and material bedazzlement in the more highly developed lands. This young potentate experiments with the notion that fun may be found in letting royalty rough it for a while below the poverty line. Besides, Eddie Murphy, the nation’s top box-office star, is Akeem. And Arsenio Hall, who made waves and friends as host of Fox Broadcasting’s The Late Show last year, is Semmi, a royal aide far more reluctant than His Highness to sample the delights of democratic living. So one tends to be rather patient with Coming to America. Surely the filmmakers ought to be able to make something out of it.

Especially since they keep sidling up to promising comic ideas. The incognito Prince meets the street paupers, who immediately steal his vanload of Vuitton luggage. The Prince discovers that even heaps of living cannot convert a slum apartment into a palace. The Prince takes a job as janitor in a fast-food joint and learns that good manners, noble bearing and even heroic action cannot overcome class distinctions. He tries to woo an uncommon commoner (played brightly by Newcomer Shari Headley) without revealing his identity, and encounters resistance from her father, who, since he is Akeem’s boss, cannot help mistaking him for a toad.

Alas, these possibilities are rarely developed beyond their initial statement. The writers’ attention span is short, no more than sketch length. This is not surprising, since they used to write for Murphy on Saturday Night Live. It means, though, that they skitter from idea to idea, never pausing to connect them in lovely long lines of lunacy. The director is also rather distracted; John Landis seems to be browsing through the scenes rather than gobbling them down. As a result, a cast of excellent black actors — about whom Murphy in his role as producer has been making justifiably proud noises — is rather let down. John Amos as the upwardly mobile hamburger mogul and James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair as Zamunda’s reigning monarchs are all obviously eager to cut loose, yet have almost no opportunities to do so.

For that matter, neither have Murphy and Hall. Every once in a while they bury themselves beneath some marvelous Rick Baker makeup to do unexpected character bits. Murphy is seen — more accurately, unseen — as a half-senile barber, a trashed rock singer and, most remarkably, a crotchety old Jewish gentleman. Hall also does a barber, as well as a Gospel preacher and what the credits call an “Extremely Ugly Girl.” Their characterizations are energetic and expert. But they are never truly funny. As with everything else in the film, the filmmakers seem to have shot the first draft of these tantalizing scenes and printed the first takes.

Finally, Coming to America seems to be more career move than movie. After the raucousness of Beverly Hills Cop II and the raunchiness of Eddie Murphy Raw, the star apparently wants to assert his claim on the currently vacant title of America’s Sweetheart. His aspirations must be bigger and badder than that. We want — may actually need — something more from this gifted man than Eddie Murphy Tame.

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