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 is an alternate French version, as well as subtitles in English, Spanish, or Portuguese. When the DVD loads, it will prompt you for which of these languages the menus should appear in.
* "Prince-ipal Photography: The Coming Together of America" (24 minutes, 35 seconds): A general overview of the production, featuring John Landis, the writers David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein, producer George Folsey, Jr., and the costume designer Deborah Nadoolman (also Landis' wife). Clips from the film, on-set photos, and brief glimpses of rehearsals (including Paula Abdul choreographing the dance number) are interspersed with the interviews, which largely focus on the search for actors. It's a decent documentary, though a little tame. Also, none of the actors are involved in any of the extras.
* "Character Building: The Many Faces of Rick Baker" (12:50): Equally as informative as the costume featurette, this one contains a contemporary interview with Baker along with the most extensive behind-the-scenes footage, including make-up tests, application, and some images from a cut sequence where the guys from the barbershop attend Akeem and Lisa's wedding.
There are also added trailers for other Eddie Murphy movies. The DVD comes with a coupon for $3 off the purchase of any of his other Paramount catalogue titles on DVD.