Modern mainstream film comedy is a graveyard filled with the corpses of men who used to be legitimately funny but have long since cashed in/out and transitioned to broad family films out of sheer pitiful self-preservation. For instance, no one needs convincing of Steve Martin’s gift for self-aware, avant garde stand-up and the way he turned that into film appearances like The Jerk, just as no one needs convincing that watching him prance around in two Father of the Bride movies was about as far from funny or entertaining as could be. It’s the same story with Robin Williams, whose blue-edged stand-up would eventually give way to the actor who brought us Bicentennial Man. Dan Aykroyd used to be a Blues Brother and Ghostbuster; now he unironically peddles diamond-filtered vodka sold in crystal skulls. Etc., etc., etc. It’s a mostly consistent rule of thumb that if an entertainer was funny in the 1970s or 1980s, he’s now reduced to starring in filmic embarrassments just to get a paycheck.
There’s no greater example of this than Eddie Murphy. His name has now become the wrong kind of punch line, one that invokes cheap humor, lazy effects, and an astounding number of fart jokes. He’s the guy from the Klumps movies, and Daddy Day Care, and the wildly overrated Shrek series. Basically, he’s a goofy voice and rubbery face whose every action and utterance is that of a man trying too hard to recapture what he used to be. And what he used to be was funny. Damn funny. There was a period in the late 20th century where Murphy just about defined the word, and he was effortlessly hip at doing so. His work on “Saturday Night Live” from 1980-84 and his handful of big-screen titles were at once hilarious and endearing, and his pair of concert films — 1983’s Delirious and 1987’s Raw — could almost be bookends for his golden period. But he had one more amazing movie in his system: 1988’s Coming to America. Directed by John Landis, the film is a flat-out amazing comedy that allows Murphy to work at the top of his game without becoming bogged down in the gimmicks that would later plague his career. Two decades of hindsight have rendered it not just a classic movie but a tragic glimpse at a comic actor about to begin a downhill slide into pathetic movies best left forgotten.
The plot is unabashedly simple. Akeem (Murphy) is the prince and heir to the throne of the African country of Zamunda, and he lives a life of pure leisure and sport with his parents, the king (James Earl Jones) and queen (Madge Sinclair), and his best friend, Semmi (Arsenio Hall). Tired of being coddled and unwilling to enter into the marriage his parents have arranged for him, Akeem decides to bolt to the United States in hopes of finding true love with a woman who respects his personality instead of his title. He and Semmi settle on the borough of Queens since it sounds like a good place to find a woman of noble stature, and from there the film plays out like a standard fish-out-of-water story as Akeem and Semmi experience American life and culture amid the dating scene. Akeem and Semmi get jobs at McDowell’s, a local fast-food joint, where Akeem falls in love with Lisa (Shari Headley), the daughter of the owner, Cleo (John Amos). There’s the requisite amount of quasi-tension when it comes to whether Akeem and Lisa will wind up together, but a few small twists aside, it plays out exactly as you think it will.
But the point of the film isn’t (just) to provide a pleasing if small love story between the leads; it’s to let Murphy shine, and he does. This was the first time Murphy played multiple characters in the same film, and the device wasn’t yet the shopworn, lifeless trick it would become. Using special makeup designed by Rick Baker (Star Wars, Videodrome, etc.), Murphy and Hall played a variety of characters throughout the film in classic scenes that fleshed out the basic narrative. More importantly, though, Landis’ film — from a screenplay by David Sheffield and Barry Blaustein and a story by Eddie Murphy (which was in turn boosted from Art Buchwald, who later sued successfully to be rewarded for his idea) — never once places the effects ahead of the story or comedy. The joke isn’t that, say, Murphy and Hall are made up to be old men working at a barbershop; the joke is that they’ve created hilarious characters that are then brought to life with special effects. Without the crutch of green-screen compositions, the actors have to rely on the genuine personas they’ve created, and it works perfectly. Landis’ direction and pacing are dead-on, too, and he employs the same modest lighting and snappy cuts to emphasize punch lines the way he did in Animal House and The Blues Brothers. The film is filled with amazing comedic riffs, but no scene is perhaps as packed as the neighborhood Black Awareness Week meeting; Murphy does triple duty as Akeem, Clarence the barber, and the inimitable Randy Watson, while Hall plays Semmi, Morris the barber, and the impassioned Reverend Brown:
The rest of the film unfolds as sweetly and predictably as you could want, running effortlessly on Murphy’s comic skill and considerable charm. (Eriq LaSalle is also amazing as the douchebag heir to the Soul Glo fortune.) It’s a pristine example of 1980s comedy, and it exists now as a time capsule, a reminder that Murphy used to be among the best in the business at making funny movies. But Coming to America was Murphy’s last gasp, the one final film he would give to his audience before embarking on a road that led to Boomerang, The Nutty Professor and its sequel, and Doctor Dolittle, among other ignoble titles. (The exception of Bowfinger just proves how bad the rest of his choices would become.) Murphy would begin to inexplicably make bad family comedies that betrayed his past and belied the funny man he must still be underneath. He has yet to regain the glory of his comedic heyday in the 1980s, but perhaps he’s a victim of his own success. In a 2005 interview, Landis said that Murphy had been young and full of energy while shooting Trading Places but had become “the pig of the world” by the time Coming to America came to pass, and was “unpleasant” and “arrogant” off-screen despite turning in a likable and quick-witted performance in the film. The film was effectively the point where Murphy’s career ate itself, killing a star in the process and adding one more body to the comedians’ graveyard. And it’s a damn shame, too. Coming to America should have been a promise of things to come, but instead it was a reminder of what would never be again.