The review portion of this piece is lifted directly from my write-up of the 2007 Special Collector's Edition of Coming to America, and in my defense, using the cut-and-paste function on my computer took more effort from me than Paramount put into this cheap repackaging for their I Love the 80's line. With this other edition released a scant eighteen months ago, one would think that another upgrade would not be needed so soon, much less a downgrade! But then, what can we expect from a marketing gimmick that can't even get its own title right. (Hint, it's "'80s," not "80's." The apostrophe is meant to indicate the missing "19," there is no conjunction on the end; you could maybe get away with no apostrophe, but it never goes after the zero.) So, feel free to stop reading now, I won't be offended. Instead, hold on to your Special Collector's Edition, with its superior picture quality and its bevy of extras, if you already have it; if you don't have it, read that review instead so that you know which one you should buy.
Coming to America is one of those perennial comedies that has been a staple of most people's lives thanks to home video and cable. First released on DVD in 1999, it's also been a film sorely overdue for a Special Collector's Edition re-release. Now, thanks to Eddie Murphy's success in Dreamgirls and the DVD release of Norbit, Murphy's most recent collaboration with make-up artist Rick Baker (Hellboy), Paramount has seen fit to spruce up one of its modern comedy classics.
Originally released in the summer of 1988, Coming to America is a sweet fairy tale about Prince Akeem (Murphy), the heir to the throne of Zamunda, the richest nation in Africa. On his twenty-first birthday, according to tradition, his parents (James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair) are set to unveil the bride they arranged for Akeem and kick off the marriage ceremonies. The prince has other things in mind, however. He wants to experience life in a free, unpampered world and find his own queen, a woman who loves him for who he is and not for his social position. Thinking he is agreeing to a sex-fueled party vacation, the King agrees to allow his son forty days to sow his "royal oats." Enlisting his right-hand man Semmi (Arsenio Hall), Akeem sets off to search for romance in the one place he assumes he will find a woman fit to rule: Queens, New York.
Coming to America is essentially a fish-out-of-water Cinderella story. Unschooled in life outside the palace, Akeem and Semmi must deal with the very different social mores of New York City. They get jobs at the bottom of the ladder at McDowell's, a knock-off of McDonald's run by Cleo McDowell (John Amos). Akeem falls for the boss' daughter, Lisa (Shari Headley), but must win her from Darryl (a pre-ER Eriq La Salle), the heir to the Soul Glo fortune. Soul Glo is an activator spray, adding curls to hair, along with a nasty, oily shine. Some of the best jokes are Soul-Glo asides, including an inspired TV commercial for the product.
The romantic plot is mostly successful, thanks largely to Murphy's genial performance. It's always nice to see the softer side of the actor, and Akeem doesn't afford him any opportunity to be a smart aleck. Headley is a little out of her depth, but the excellent ensemble props her up well. It's this light-hearted, feel-good element that is likely responsible for Coming to America being remembered largely as a family movie. I was actually quite surprised to realize it is rated R and full of language not meant for little ears. I think the fact that most parents don't seem to mind their kids watching it speaks to how good-natured the film is.
Still, I don't think most people actually view Coming to America over and over for the story. What is most memorable about the picture are the various supporting parts Murphy and Arsenio play in addition to their lead roles. Director John Landis teamed the actors up with Rick Baker, the special-effects and make-up man on Landis' An American Werewolf in London, to give them the opportunity to go deep into disguise to play the sort of characters they might not otherwise get a chance to play. Hall is fantastic as an Al Sharpton-styled preacher, and Murphy plays the uncomfortably funny frontman for a low-rate soul band called Sexual Chocolate, a parody worthy of a Christopher Guest film. Both actors are almost completely unrecognizable in Baker's make-up, using the masks to obliterate any semblance of their true selves.
More impressive, however, are the roles they take on in the neighborhood barbershop. Decked out in old-man make-up, Eddie and Arsenio, along with the sadly unheralded Clint Smith, are the bickering geezers from around the way, arguing over who is the best boxer and whether or not one of them met Martin Luther King, Jr. As if that weren't enough, Eddie Murphy plays a second old man in the shop--a white, Jewish senior citizen named Saul. I doubt when the actor looked in the mirror, he even recognized himself. Landis and his editors do a masterful job cutting it all together, avoiding optical tricks and split screens. In some instances, they have six characters in the room and only three actors. Yet, you'd never know if you hadn't been told.
Coming to America is an impressive comedic effort. One of the greats. It still inspires laughs after all this time, and it even manages to amaze from a technical standpoint. Given all the pieces Landis and his team have to work with--a romantic story, a stranger-in-a-strange-land story, parody, outrageous characters--the fact that it all fits together so well is quite an achievement. It could have been a real mess, but instead it's glorious fun.
There are big, big problems with the image transfer on the Coming to America - I Love the 80's DVD. You're going to see it right away, as there are spots on the print right from the beginning of the opening credits. Worse, though, is that the aspect ratio is all wrong. The film is supposed to be 1.85:1, but this print is not as tall as it is intended to be. It isn't anamorphic either, despite the "enhanced for widescreen TVs" claims to the contrary on the box. Take a look at these comparison shots to see what I am talking about. You can see way more of the banner above their heads in the 2007 screengrab.
If I had to guess, rather than working with materials from the 2007 disc, Paramount took the easy way out and just ported over the 1999 disc, since it was already set up without any extras; the technical specs, including the audio, is exactly the same. I wouldn't even be surprised if the menus are the same. If this is the case, it would explain the slightly faded colors and the soft picture. This transfer, besides being sized incorrectly, just isn't as crisp as the Special Collector's Edition.
In terms of audio, the English soundtrack specs are the same as on the 2007 release, with options in both 2.0 and 5.1. As I wrote then, the surround effects are used sparingly, but smartly. The scenes with more complicated sound set-ups are given a little extra boost through the speakers. Also, English subtitles are carried over from the last disc to this one.
Missing from the Special Collector's Edition are the French dub, Spanish subtitles, and Portuguese subtitles. Again, these choices match the original 1999 DVD, adding to my lingering suspicion that this is just an old product in new clothes.
There were a lot of extras on the Special Collector's Edition of Coming to America, but all you're going to get on the I Love the 80's edition is the theatrical trailer and a musical CD featuring songs by Echo & the Bunnymen, Erasure, INXS, and a-ha--none of which are in the movie, naturally.
You also get a paper insert trying to direct you to a website where you can buy crappy tie-ins to this crappy line of DVDs. Don't be suckered.
Coming to America is a fantastic comedy, and one I recommend without reservation. This I Love the 80's release of the film, on the other hand, is an inferior product and should be avoided at all costs. There is a better DVD of this film out there, and it's the 2007 Special Collector's Edition. This low-grade 2009 DVD has a subpar image, is completely absent of extra features, and is simply not worth your money (both versions are the same price, even). Shame on Paramount for such a lazy effort. But then again, if they can't even be bothered to double-check their grammar before naming an entire product line, I guess any expectation that they might pay attention to quality control would be unrealistic. Skip It.
"Ahhhh, Skip It!"
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.