‘Coming 2 America’ review: Comedic royalty

By A.O. Scott

Breaking away from a lavish palace party meant to celebrate his engagement, Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler), the newly minted crown prince of Zamunda, complains about the state of Hollywood filmmaking. He never says what kinds of movies he does like, but he’s vocal in his disdain for superhero spectacles and “sequels that nobody asked for.” Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha), his royal groomer and love interest, disagrees. Zamundan cinema isn’t so great, she says, and some of those sequels aren’t so bad.

Their conversation is one of several metajokes scattered throughout “Coming 2 America,” a genial, mostly inoffensive, sometimes quite funny sequel to a beloved comedy from way back in the 1980s. “Coming to America” — the original, directed by John Landis — starred Eddie Murphy as Crown Prince Akeem, who traveled to the royally named borough of Queens, New York, to sow his wild oats, accompanied by Arsenio Hall as his aide-de-camp and comic foil, Semmi.

If you remember that movie — it holds up pretty well despite a few bits that may chafe against present-day sensitivities — you will recall that the prince fell in love with a New Yorker named Lisa (Shari Headley), whose father (John Amos) owned a fast-food restaurant called McDowell’s. If you haven’t seen or can’t quite recall “Coming to America,” the relevant background is helpfully supplied here, along with some new information. Back then, it seems, there was an oat that got away — a not-even-one-night stand with Mary Junson (Leslie Jones) that resulted in Lavelle.

Akeem, who has three daughters with Lisa, learns of his son’s existence during an eventful first act as he and his queen celebrate their 30th anniversary and bid farewell to King Jaffe (James Earl Jones). Complicating factors include threats from General Izzi (Wesley Snipes), the bellicose ruler of the neighboring country of Nexdoria, and the patriarchal laws of Zamunda, which stipulate that the occupant of the throne must be male. Lavelle, a college dropout and part-time ticket scalper with some of his father’s good-hearted charm, looks like the solution to the kingdom’s problems.

But of course the laws of comedy require that further problems ensue, and the many-authored script supplies plenty. Akeem and Semmi return to New York for what feels like a too-brief visit. The fish-out-of-water delights of “Coming to America” could hardly be repeated, but that film’s comic view of America from the perspective of a naive African aristocrat could have used a more energetic updating. It’s nice to catch up with some of the secondary comic characters — the barbershop guys played by Hall and Murphy in old-age prosthetics, most especially — but anytime a ripe satirical opportunity comes into view, “Coming 2,” directed by Craig Brewer, runs in the other direction.

But maybe satire isn’t really the point. It isn’t hard, at the moment, to find comedy with a sharper edge, or a tougher view of American dysfunction. “Coming 2” — not unlike Brewer and Murphy’s previous collaboration, “Dolemite Is My Name” — is a sweet and silly celebration of Black popular culture, with a sincere respect for history and a welcoming regard for the new generation. (Speaking of “Dolemite,” this movie provides further testimony to the absolute comic genius of Snipes.)

Gladys Knight, En Vogue and Salt N Pepa show up (as themselves, in fine vocal form), and so does KiKi Layne, a rising star (see “If Beale Street Could Talk”) who plays Meeka, Akeem’s oldest daughter. Generational conflict may drive the story, but the vibe is of an all-ages party, a blended family reunion with Tracy Morgan as the wacky uncle.

Still, like Lavelle and Mirembe at the big bash, you might be tempted to wander off in the long, soft middle, when the music and jokes are put on hold in the interests of a creaky, corny, self-helpy plot. It takes “Coming 2” three-quarters of its running time to arrive at the place where “Coming to” started: the rejection of an arranged marriage in favor of the search for a soul mate. The feminist gestures at the end have an obligatory, let’s-all-nod-our-heads-in-unison feeling that a more daring movie, or one with a stronger idea of what it wanted to be, would not have needed. Lavelle’s cynicism about sequels isn’t challenged very effectively, I’m afraid.

I do have one more thing to say, though, which may in itself be a sufficient recommendation, and that is: Ruth E. Carter. One of the all-time great costume designers, she won an Oscar for “Black Panther” and could win another one just for Gen. Izzi’s warlord couture. (Don’t skip the credits, or you’ll miss him in a kilt.) The art of “Coming 2 America” resides most fully in the costumes, which are at once travesties of globalist modern style and inspired tributes to it as well as fully realized examples of a cultural collision that the movie itself can’t quite imagine.

‘Coming 2 America’

Rated PG-13. Mild cross-cultural naughtiness. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. Watch on Amazon.

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