'Coming to America,' starring Eddie Murphy and directed by John Landis, takes a lame idea and some very talented comedic actors and manages to avoid a complete disaster. But just barely.
Murphy, who is credited with the story idea, plays a corny hero, Prince Akeem, who drifts from his native African nation of Zamunda to America -- specifically, Queens -- in search of a bride with both beauty and brains. He pretends to be a poor African student and gets a job at a fast-food restaurant, where he finds his future princess, wins her, then loses her and then wins her again. They are destined to live happily ever after.
Fortunately, there's more to this movie than all that, although Murphy and company give the impression that this plot line actually might hold an audience's attention for more than a box-full of popcorn. Wrong.
Murphy and co-star Arsenio Hall also play a couple of other roles in this film and it's these off-beat, frantic cameos that lend some quality to the otherwise lifeless material. The prince and his servant, Hall, demand to be taken to an 'ordinary' part of Queens for their search for the bride and happily rent a rat-infested, dingy apartment above a barbershop. The movie is the brightest when it wanders down to the barbershop, also where Murphy and Hall do double and triple time as three randy old men -- two blacks (Murphy and Hall) and a white (Murphy) - who argue and swear at each other and carry on with some of the raunchiest and cheeriest language of the film. They are a delight.
The pair also shine in a short sequence at a 'Black Awareness' pageant, where Murphy plays a bad rock singer -- about as funny a bit as former Saturday Night Live star Bill Murray's corny lounge singer. Hall has some fun in the same sequence as a rock 'n roll minister, with his eye on the ladies and his mind on salvation.
James Earl Jones, like the veteran he is, manages to take the role of the King of Zamunda, a benevolent, but insensitive, dictator, and make him cartoonish and laughable. If only the other actors and actresses had taken their cue from this wily actor, they might have saved the otherwise pretentious story-book premise.
John Amos, a fine actor who helped make the former television series 'Good Times' such a hit, also overplays his character, the father of the prince's bride-to-be and the owner and cagey operator of a McDonald look-alike hamburger restaurant.
What the moviemakers failed to see was that overacting was just what was needed to make 'Coming to America' work. Instead, Murphy in his role as the prince, and Shari Headley as the American target of the prince's attention, seem like their playing a stilted update of an old fairytale. Every stereotype about love, friendship and loyalty are paraded before us in boring detail; no amount of clever circumstances can save that dreary old formula.
Maybe Murphy will give us a movie about the funny old men of that Queens barbershop, and the bad rock singer and salacious old bible thumper -- they seemed to be the real emotional heros of this film.
This movie is rated R. Film contains strong language.