Coming to America
Like many forms of human endeavors the film industry is not without a certain amount of superstition. There are certain performers or projects that are believed to be cursed in some form or another. One is the curse of Saturday Night Live. Many comedians that have been highly successful in a sketch comedy format fall flatter than a pancake when they attempt to take on a feature length film. There is a lot of evidence that supports this hypothesis with a long list of SNL alumni that have come out with one bomb after another. There is also something that is referred to as the exception to prove the rule. On occasion a former SNL cast member makes a film that is funny and entertaining. Mike Myers managed to dodge the curse with his Austin Powers and Wayne’s world flicks. SNL founders Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd had a number of hit comedies. One other member of the famed television cast to score a few hits was Eddie Murphy. He is naturally funny and is able to work as a mimic taking on numerous rolls at the drop of the hat. One of the better opuses that this man has stared in is ‘Coming to America’. It is a modern fairy tale of a prince off to a strange country to sow his royal wild oats prior to taking on the duties of leading his nation. It is a strong premise that is well worked here with hilarious results. The film blends a number of classic comic elements so as not to stretch the premise too far. There is a touch of romantic comedy, some physical humor and an enduring favorite; the case of mistaken identity. While this may seem too ambitious an undertaking it doesn’t show in this particular case. In the hands of seasoned professions of the comedy world the movie has become one of the defining comedies of the eighties. There have been a couple of DVD releases over the years but now Paramount has been releasing some of the best loved films of the eighties with a ‘I Love the Eighties’ edition. This line is typically plain vanilla but the movies are such classics that they can stand on their own. If you were around back in those days this is certainly a minimal decision as to whether it deserves a place in your home collection. For those out there born around or after that decade this is a perfect opportunity to see how a comedy should be done. Too many comedies now are so inane that it is a chore to watch them. This film has its share of silly moments but overall it is a well constructed flick that is eminently enjoyable.
The screenplay for the movie was provided by Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield based on a story idea by Murphy. Both men were staff writers on Saturday Night Live during Murphy’s tenure and had the lamentable ‘Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment’, as their first movie script project. The story of the prince trying to find his independence before settling down to the royal life is a scaffold that is filled in with connected skits and little bits. This is not to say that the film is uneven or segmented it is not. The story is advanced by these sketches but the pair of writers played to their television roots. In a lot of cases a writer making the transition from the small to big screen they take on too much too soon. In this story each scene is like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that is colorful on an individual basis but fit seamlessly together to give the full picture. The concept of royal and commoner changing places is one that has a long history in literature. There is the ‘Prince and the Pauper’ which typically requires a set of twins to pull off on the screen. This is more of a reverse Cinderella story where instead of a lowly girl winding up in the royal world a privileged prince desires to live for awhile as an average person. This allows the writers to play on the fish out of water plot device with very good results.
John Landis may be best known for his position as one of the legendary masters of horror but it cannot be forgotten that he is one of the best comic directors of his time. He took charge of both ‘Animal House’ and the cult favorite ‘The Kentucky Fried Movie’ with hysterical results. The horror films that Landis has directed are all top notch and include such off beat offerings as ‘Innocent Blood’ and ‘An American Werewolf in London’ as well as one of the most famous music videos in history; Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’. This man is able to stride between comedy, music and horror in a way that few have managed. Landis knows how to deliver a well paced movie no matter what genre he is working in. In this case what could easily be called a silly premise is sold to the audience largely because of the style that Landis has. He uses the bits that are provided by the script in such a way as to craft a coherent story that engages the viewer.
Akeem Joffer (Eddie Murphy) has a life that anyone would envy. As the prince and heir too the throne of his country his life is more than one of privilege; he is pampered beyond belief. There are servants at his beck and call 24/7. One is even assigned too brush his teeth while others dress him. He has been breed to rule and taught every aspect of physical and mental discipline that will make him king. On his twenty first birthday Akeem is introduced to the young woman who is to be his bride. Akeem wants more than someone who would demean herself in response to his lightest whim. He announces that he will go to America to find a queen worthy of him and there is one place that seems natural, Queens, New York. He travels there accompanied with his best friend major domo of his servants Semmi (Arsenio Hall). Once there the get a ratty little apartment and menial jobs at a fast food joint McDowell's. The place is owned by Cleo McDowell (John Amos) and the men are assigned work that includes mopping up the place. The pair hit the bars looking for Akeem’s new queen but none are anywhere near suitable. McDowell does have a beautiful daughter Lisa (Shari Headley) but she is involved with a self indulgent jerk Darryl Jenks (Eriq La Salle). Akeem has sworn that he will not reveal his royal identity in order to make sure any woman wants him not his power and wealth so he must win the hand of Lisa as a commoner.
Both Murphy and Hall take to special effects makeup to assume various roles. Few men can pull of something like this but they can. The scene in the bar where Hall plays an extremely ugly and twisted woman is a classic moment in comedy. The film is plain vanilla one but this film is well worth it without the usual extras. This is one of the defining film comedies of the eighties and is one that should not be missed. Make room on your shelf; you will want this one and all of the others in this series of releases.