COMING TO AMERICA (1988)
Directed by: John Landis
Written by: Eddie Murphy (story), David Sheffield & Barry W. Blaustein (screenplay)
COMING TO AMERICA in one sentence:
Yourself: Before there was the King of Queens, there was the Prince of Queens.
Golem: Does this make Eddie Murphy and Mark Hamill brothers?
Here's a story about me and COMING TO AMERICA:
Yourself: The instrumental version of the Soul Glo song was my ringtone for a while in college. Good way to farm nods of approval.
Golem: You get in good with an American woman's father, you in good with her.
Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: While there is the occasional weird foreigner joke, the movie rarely stoops to that level of ignorance. Prince Akeem is more Richie Rich than Charlie Chan, and most of the humor once we land in America is at the expense of Americans. But I could do without the fake accent.
What's his name, Darryl, is a surprisingly weak romantic rival. He knocks himself out of the race pretty early, teaching Akeem that don't be a psycho control freak. Akeem mostly grows by observing others fail, but he does eventually get his big flop on the subway.
Falling in love with someone and getting married within 40 days is a very stupid and irresponsible thing to do. But speed of light romance is nothing new to fiction.
Golem: Did I miss something about Lisa McDowell's mother? Did she die? Was Cleo ever married? It's strange that Cleo makes such a strong parallel with Jaffe Joffer, only to have no matching Aeoleon. I honestly think I missed something. [editor: he did not miss anything]. As it is, I imagine the American version of Aeoleon leaves her husband.
The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: There is a cartoonish atmosphere to the film, couched in the exaggerated emotions and dialogue of the main characters and elevated by the surrogate locales and sets. I wish I could find a screengrab of it: in Cleo's house there's this random framed collage of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. epitomizing this winking fiction (another that comes to mind is the preposterously long royal breakfast table). You can't set a movie in the real world and have your star play six different roles, but in the fictional land of Zamunda, McDowell's, and Soul Glo, the story automatically graduates to a figurative level. It is very acutely a fairy tale.
It's time to reword this question to "style", since more often than not that's what I find myself reflecting upon.
Golem: Queens is a very grungy place. For all too long, the cleanest set in the film is
The Zamundian palace also gets a hefty bit of attention at the film's start. It's an overly ornate palace, mocking the viewer's understanding of Africa. To this end: when Akeem and his father walk together through the palace backyard, they pause for the occasional zebra or elephant.
Performances to speak of?
Yourself: John Amos holds this damn thing together. He's so American, eager to please anyone that will help him get his way - where "his way" just means financial security for his daughter. His accordingly mercurial moods keep his interactions with other characters fresh. When Darryl comes to his door at an inconvenient moment, you get to see him ramp from impatient dismissal to exasperated fury.
I would be remiss not to mention the SNL-esque character sketches peppered in by Murphy and Hall incognito (including the always hilarious whiteface!). They are glaring (I could live without Sexual Chocolate, an idea looking for a home if ever there was one), but the camera returns to them regularly enough that they contribute to the surreal texture. The recurring barbers are a ton of fun - I particularly like that Arsenio's is perpetually eating. Talk about the last thing you ever want to do at a barber shop.
Golem: Arsenio Hall plays Semmi, Akeem's trusted servant. If Akeem shows our good side, hoping to see the best in everyone and play fair, then Semmi satisfies our immediate urges. Akeem gets sickeningly sweet, setting up Semmi to relieve our annoyance. Adorned in ugly "I <3 New York" buttons, Akeem smiles. Semmi complains: "I feel like an idiot."
A really cool shot or scene:
Yourself: If GHOSTBUSTERS has the most quotable dialogue of its era, COMING TO AMERICA has the most quotable imagery. Hamburger phone. Jheri curls. Soul Glo. James Earl Jones wearing a lion. The awed bystanders (or bysitters) to the subway proposal. The McDowells uniforms (better still because what kind of movie casts John Amos to play up Scottish heritage?). It thrives on good old-fashioned visual absurdity that's there for you to get or not get - there are very few punchlines hung up for applause. The movie can make a joke just by putting swelling regal orchestration on a steady shot of the Zamundan flag, which appears to depict a lion punching the sun in half.
Golem: Akeem's apartment is infested with rats, littered with newspaper shreds, and features a stained mattress with no covers. By the time you see the outline of a crime scene involving a man, a dog, and a cane, it becomes funny just how absurdly awful this apartment is.
When Semmi gets his hand on it, though, he transforms it into a knockout bachelor pad (he's picked up an American sense of taste quickly). The enormity of the apartment's transformation sells the joke well enough, but it also lands because it marks a change in tone. We first see the new apartment after witnessing Akeem prepare for a sweet-hearted date.
So, not wishing to keep the gaudy apartment, Akeem gives it to his landlord. The mismatch of a lightly-shaven, cigar-chewing guy chilling in a swanky hot tob (hey what's the name of that hat?) is only heightened when Jaffe Joffer, complete in royal robes, tromps through low income housing with his entourage and arrives at this unbelievably ostentatious room tucked away in a corner.
What does it all really mean?
Yourself: This is a very traditional fable romance. Dissatisfied princes dressing in rags to bang commoners has been a storytelling trope since at least classical Greek mythology, possibly a couple years earlier. Good intentions are rewarded. It is basically a kids' movie for kids who already know about hand jobs.
Golem: People are basically good. Only one person in the film is a genuine bad guy, Samuel L. Jackson's fast food robber. Darryl Jenks, as much as I hate him, finds his match in Patrice, as if he just needed the right partner to domineer over. (Reminds me of that line from ANNIE HALL, after Alvy asks a passing couple how they manage to stay in love: "Uh, I'm very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.") COMING TO AMERICA simultaneously speaks to the tragedy of love (you can't always get what you want) and provides a sense of hope (everyone has a match out there). Akeem seeks out a woman to challenge and fulfill him, but don't forget that his father has a successful and happy marriage.
Note to future self on watching COMING TO AMERICA:
Yourself: This has to be one of the most universally liked movies ever. I should file it away to use on dates along with MUPPET TREASURE ISLAND.
Golem: This is a really happy and goofy movie. It has a lady who bounces on one foot and yaps like a dog.
Come back next week to find out what Greg and Greg think of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit Part 5: BRAINDEAD.