***/**** Image A Sound A Extras B+
starring Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, James Earl Jones, John Amos
screenplay by David Sheffield & Barry W. Blaustein
directed by John Landis
by Bill Chambers When I interviewed the great documentarian Steve James of Hoop Dreams fame, he asked me if I'd ever seen Coming to America, and I didn't know quite how to answer him. There was a time, during my adolescence in the mid-to-late '80s, when not seeing the latest Eddie Murphy movie would've put a serious crimp in my social life--when the extremely homophobic routines of Eddie Murphy "Delirious" (a.k.a. Eddie Murphy: Comedian, which my friend Joel gave to me on vinyl for my 12th birthday) constituted the lingua franca of my peers, for worse or for worse. This was also the age of PayTV and home video, when it was not uncommon to watch a film you liked over and over again until you practically fused with it; I liked Coming to America. I liked it, and lots of kids my age liked it, I suspect, because it made us feel like adults with its titties and swears but basically coddled us with a plot out of Disney and a laid-back vibe to match. I'd soured on it in the years since, partly out of fear it was a low-key minstrel show. I'm still not sure that it isn't, but anyway, in answer to James's question, I said "yep."
The reason James asked is that we were discussing his segment of the excellent PBS miniseries "The New Americans", centring on a refugee family that was forced to flee Nigeria by a government more concerned with protecting the rights of the Shell Oil corporation than with defending the will of the people. At one point, as they're getting ready to leave for the States, patriarch Israel says he feels just like Eddie Murphy in Coming to America. James said that he actually encountered a number of Nigerian fans of the picture ("This was a touchstone film in Nigeria"), who all seemed to particularly enjoy the depiction of Africa as home to lavish palaces and storybook kingdoms:
There's no such degree of wealth, that was of course very cartoonish to them, but they found it funny. What I think makes the film so impactful to them is that they watch this guy come to America, and he keeps his regal background a secret, he's in search of the perfect wife. So he is extremely humbled to the nth degree--working the kinds of jobs that the immigrants know that you in fact end up working when you come to America. Yet he remained pure of heart and he becomes, in essence, this inspirational character, because he remains true to who he is as this proud African prince--while putting up with all manner of humiliation. In their eyes, he ends up being this incredibly inspired, proud character, even though they know it's a comedy. They're not missing the humour of it.
That conversation caused me to look on Coming to America a lot more kindly. Murphy plays Akeem, an African prince so pampered and devastatingly rich (he's on the currency of his own country, Zamunda) that a kind of ennui has set in. On his 21st birthday, he is betrothed in an arranged marriage to a complete stranger (Sheila Johnson) who proves too obsequious for her own good. Akeem's father, King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones), grants his son 40 days to sow his wild oats before settling down, though Akeem really intends to use that time to not only court someone of his own choosing to be his wife, but also temporarily shed his privilege, "The Prince and the Pauper"-like. With loyal servant Semmi (Arsenio Hall) in tow, he travels to Queens (where else?), moves into a tenement, and gets a job mopping the floor at a Black-owned McDonald's knockoff called McDowell's, where he falls hard for Lisa (Shari Headley), the daughter of proprietor Cleo (John Amos). Inconveniently, she's in a relationship with preppy-villain-in-a-Jheri-curl Darryl (Eriq La Salle), heir to the Soul Glo empire.
Coming to America's controversial genesis is largely elided or circumvented within the bonus material on Paramount's DVD, Blu-ray, and now 4K releases of the film. Humorist Art Buchwald sued the studio for breach of contract, alleging that Coming to America bore a striking resemblance to a treatment he'd sold them in 1982 for an unproduced screenplay called It's a Cruel, Cruel World (later King for a Day), in which an African potentate is deposed during a visit to the White House and left with no choice but to fend for himself in the Washington ghetto. Buchwald had a few things working in his favour aside from the projects' superficial similarities--namely, that It's a Cruel, Cruel World was originally pitched as an Eddie Murphy vehicle, and that Coming to America director John Landis was attached to direct it until Paramount put it in turnaround--and the court awarded him a share of the net profits. But the studio contended they owed him precisely nothing, given that the film, despite grossing over ten times its $28M budget, technically had yet to make a dime. As detailed in the hefty tome Fatal Subtraction, the lawsuit became infamous for pioneering the creative math of "Hollywood accounting," in which movie companies bill themselves for expenditures against a production to decrease the amount in royalties they'll have to pay out down the line. The revisionist backstory on DVD, et al. finds Eddie Murphy pitching Landis the idea for Coming to America over the phone, Landis saying "yes," and Paramount fast-tracking it for a summer '88 release. Although Buchwald v. Paramount is at least as much the film's legacy as its popularity among Nigerians, the studio has elected to print the legend.
What is discussed, albeit daintily, is the friction that occurred between Landis and Murphy on set, something I already recounted in a recent review of Landis's Beverly Hills Cop III. Landis says in these extra features that the tension had nothing to do with Eddie resisting direction and everything to do with Landis himself refusing to recognize that the balance of power had shifted to Murphy's side since they'd made Trading Places together in 1983. This is unsurprising, considering the stories of Murphy's ego run amok (not to apologize for Landis, who isn't exactly trailed by rose petals wherever he walks), yet it's hard to square with the content of Coming to America, which feels like a movie star expressing himself at a crossroads. As funny as they are, scenes such as the one where Prince Akeem struggles to get to know his would-be fiancee must come from a deeply personal place: Every question he asks her about herself reveals her instinct to define her personality by his predilections; Murphy's exasperation with sycophants is so palpable here that he breaks the fourth wall and looks at the camera conspiratorially. And though it would morph into something like a psychological condition for the actor, Murphy's essaying of multiple roles behind heavy Rick Baker makeups suggests a desire to return to sketch comedy and ensemble work. Even Akeem's gentle African lilt seems like Murphy trying to distance himself from his star persona, if not demonstrate his range.
In short, Coming to America is about and reflects a fear of disappearing up one's own ass. Murphy is present in scenes in a way he hadn't been before and has seldom been since; and the sweetness and charm he brings to Akeem are new and rare qualities as well. The character is a universe away from the cock-of-the-walk bluster of Axel Foley (especially Beverly Hills Cop II Axel Foley) while never coming across like a total put-on. Eddie is electrifyingly unguarded at certain moments, like when Akeem belts out Jackie Wilson's "To Be Loved" on the walk home to his shithole apartment after his first date with Lisa, the disembodied heckling of New Yorkers serving as the rain to his happily oblivious Gene Kelly. To some degree, the film is lacking in conflict, even with Akeem hiding his true identity from Lisa, even with Akeem clashing with his traditionalist father, even with shady Darryl waiting in the wings. One of the best decisions Coming to America makes, however, is to steer clear of snobs vs. slobs convention (which would be ironic besides with two affluent guys butting heads); Darryl could stand to be a bit more of a threat for the sake of drama, but the vaguely Zen Akeem is all the more likable and honourable for trusting that Lisa can recognize a dog when she sees one. I do wish that Lisa had a little more dimension to her--she's mostly defined by what she's not (a doormat, a weirdo, a gold-digger)--and I fear that I have no right to laugh at some of the funniest gags in this movie, like Arsenio Hall's barbershop character leaving a chicken drumstick on the collection plate. Coming to America transcended all accepted wisdom by earning nearly $300M worldwide with no action or special effects, an R rating, and an all-Black cast (save Louie Anderson), but the architects of its satire were white screenwriters and a white director, which tickles at my conscience.
THE 4K UHD DISC
Paramount's 4K Blu-ray of Coming to America contains all of the supplementary material that first appeared on DVD and then Blu-ray, hence there are no other discs bundled with the 4K platter (although the studio still saw fit to include a voucher for a digital copy). Extras begin with "Prince-ipal Photography: The Coming Together of America" (25 mins., SD), a retrospective making-of running the gamut from pre- to post-production that, like the remaining featurettes in this series, is completely bereft of any talent that appeared on screen in the film. The decision to open with an anecdote from Landis about how the picture is "the direct result of a phone call from Eddie Murphy" makes me wonder if we shouldn't take his every claim with a grain of salt. "Fit for Akeem: The Costumes of Coming to America" (18 mins., SD) shines the spotlight on Mrs. Landis, Deborah Nadoolman, a gifted fashion designer--she made Michael Jackson's iconic red jacket from the "Thriller" video--who finally got to put her AFRICAN ARTS subscription to use in creating the movie's costumes. It goes on a little long but her work deserves it; midway through, we learn that Rick Baker introduced her to a taxidermist who supplied her with the lion rug that James Earl Jones wears like a stole--a joke that's only gotten funnier post-The Lion King. Speak of the devil, "Character Building: The Many Faces of Rick Baker" (13 mins., SD) covers the prosthetic effects in some depth. Landis says he brought multiple Eddies and Arsenios together through cutting alone, sans splitscreen. Baker based Murphy's Old White Jew makeup on his own father-in-law, who subsequently served as a stand-in when Murphy was playing the barber.
Lastly, "Composing America: The Music of Nile Rodgers" (11 mins., SD) takes a while to get to Rodgers himself, launching instead with remarks from ROLLING STONE's David Wild and Gail Mitchell of BILLBOARD that have the air of eulogy. Music producer Rodgers, the lead singer of Chic in another life, reflects on being the composer of Coming to America, an all-encompassing role that saw him crafting the "Soul Glo" jingle as well as the earwormy title track--something Eddie Murphy and Arsenio wanted to sing themselves. Rodgers insisted on hiring a professional band (The System), a decision he now regrets, as he figures the song might've gotten more airplay for the novelty factor if the stars had recorded it. Additionally, "A Vintage Sit-Down with Eddie & Arsenio" (5 mins., SD) is just that, shot in 16mm on the palace set. Asked about the impetus for the project, Eddie--squirming next to his co-star like a kid in the waiting room at the dentist's--volleys the question to Arsenio, who, to his credit, recognizes the auteurist resonances of the script. The two ultimately can't keep any story straight, not how they met nor what they'd consider the most fun they've had on the production. Rounding out the supplementals are a step-frame gallery of production stills and the film's theatrical trailer, both in HD.
Supervised by Landis, Coming to America's 1.78:1, 2160p transfer is refined and elegant but fairly reserved when it comes to the potential embellishments of HDR (presented in Dolby Vision and HDR10, the latter of which I audited). Film grain is healthy and reproduced with precision, while the frankly gobsmacking level of textural detail honours the artistry that went into the clothing. Though I don't have the SDR Blu-ray to compare it to, matching it up against the HD stream on Netflix testifies to this remaster's vastly superior handling of colours, from toning down the saturation to delivering a wider-ranging palette. (The echoes of Emerald City in the palace pavilion are unmistakable in UHD, debatable in HD.) Specular highlights fail to generate sudden interest, but the image as a whole is more luminous than ever before, with a softer drop-off to black. I will say that at the 12:50 mark, there is a shot with bizarrely dupey edges and a strange artifact that causes Semmi's tuxedo to glimmer as he shifts in place, though these issues resolve with the next edit, thankfully never to resurface. I did not, for what it's worth, observe this same phenomenon on Netflix. Audio is a reasonably immersive 5.1 remix in DTS-HD MA; music benefits the most from the lossless encoding, gaining warmth and a percussive punch where applicable. The early dance number is a sonic highlight, featuring convincing acoustics and some nice imaging throughout the soundstage. Available in separate slipcover and steelbook editions.
116 mins.; R; 1.78:1 (2160p/MPEG-H), Dolby Vision/HDR10; English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, French DD 2.0, German DD 2.0; English, English SDH, French, German subtitles; BD-66; Region-free; Paramount