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.
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.
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.
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.