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'Coming 2 America' not a great movie, but it is great - and surprisingly gorgeous - fun

From left: Arsenio Hall, Eddie Murphy and Clint Smith appear in a scene from "Coming 2 America."

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By ANN HORNADAY | The Washington Post | Published: March 5, 2021

Who among us would count “Coming to America” as a great movie? The 1988 comedy, which featured Eddie Murphy at the height of his stardom, was far from a cinematic masterpiece: The silly, slapstick fairy tale of an African prince who travels to Queens to find the love of his life was pure ‘80s schlock, from its plastic production values to a plot that felt cobbled together from a library shelf of So You Think You Can Write a Screenplay guides. It wasn’t even a grand showcase for Murphy, who with the exception of playing some amusing secondary characters in disguise, delivered a performance far more subdued than he was capable of.

And yet. “Coming to America” became a huge hit, and has accrued only more love over the years as a cult film for succeeding generations. Indeed, within a mainstream film culture completely co-opted by special effects and metastasizing multiverses, even the flaws of “Coming to America” now seem not just forgivable but endearing, part and parcel of the kind of midrange, one-off movie that used to define the theatrical cinematic experience. “Coming to America” didn’t aspire to be great, which is what made it great.

The same kind of self-awareness infuses “Coming 2 America,” a long-awaited sequel that aims squarely to serve its audience, with no apology and a surfeit of pleasures, both simple and wildly extravagant. Chock full of callbacks, in-jokes, knowing references and replays, “Coming 2 America” is adamantly, unabashedly one for the fans. And, judged solely by that mission, it’s a straight-up, if modest, success.

As “Coming 2 America” opens, Prince Akeem (Murphy) is on the verge of assuming the throne in the fictional African country of Zamunda, while his wife, Lisa (Shari Headley), and his three daughters await the transition with regal aplomb. The oldest daughter, Meeka (KiKi Layne), is smart, strong and shrewd enough to assume the role of leader-in-waiting. But King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) has not changed the patriarchal laws of Zamunda, which can only be led by a male heir. When Akeem is informed that he indeed has a son - the result of that junket to Queens 30 years ago - his problems would seem to be solved.

What ensues is a rehash of the original fish-out-of-water setup, this time with Akeem’s son Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) and his mother, Mary (Leslie Jones), being fetched from their modest New York apartment and plopped into palatial luxury in Zamunda. Fans of the original film will recognize the most memorable rites and rituals of the first film, from the court’s royal bathers (no longer topless) to a dazzling set piece when General Izzi (Wesley Snipes), from the neighboring land of Nexdoria, presents his daughter Bopoto (Teyana Taylor) for marriage to Lavelle. (There’s even a reprise of a taxi gag from the first movie, updated for the Uber age.)

Will Lavelle prove himself as King-of-Zamunda material? Will he marry Bopoto or leave his arranged bride hanging, the same way Akeem did back in ‘88 (a plot point that is revisited here)? Who cares? “Coming 2 America,” which was directed by Craig Brewer and co-written by Kenya Barris, Barry Blaustein and David Sheffield, is less about what happens than making sure nearly every beat from the original is resuscitated, from Murphy and co-star Arsenio Hall playing the dozens as a bunch of old men in a Queens barbershop to the appearance of an all-star cast of musicians in two all-out musical numbers.

Old favorites are back for another lap: In addition to Hall and Headley, “Coming 2 America” features John Amos, Louie Anderson and Paul Bates as the angel-voiced aide-de-camp Oha. Newcomers Jones, Snipes and Tracy Morgan fit in seamlessly with the proceedings, with Jones pepping things up considerably with her improvisatory brio. As she did in “The Old Guard” last year, Layne plays her character with a mix of feminine grace and ferocity, and all the young players - especially newcomer Nomzamo Mbatha - acquit their roles with professionalism and self-assurance.

Even more gratifying than the playful, if sometimes grating, humor - like the first movie, albeit to a less leering extent, this one wants to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to objectifying women - the look of “Coming 2 America” has improved considerably. Perhaps the biggest star of the film isn’t an on-screen player but its costume designer Ruth Carter, who has gone all out in creating an Afrocentric aesthetic that bursts with richly hued fabrics, lush textures and gleaming metallics, all of them literally crowned by Stacey Morris’s fabulously intricate hair styles. Part “Black Panther” (which Carter also worked on), and part frothy, Disney-esque fantasia, the visuals of “Coming 2 America” are a pure delight, with a climactic scene giving the term “ruffles and flourishes” particularly lavish new meaning.

With its previous R-rating being tamed to PG-13, “Coming 2 America” will no doubt arrive as sweet relief to families eager for some downtime and eye-popping escape. It’s not great cinema. It’s good at what it sets out to do. Which makes it great fun.

"Coming 2 America" is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual material, coarse language and drugs. Running time: 108 minutes. Available on Amazon Prime.

Eddie Murphy, left, and Jermaine Fowler play nrely discovered father and son in "Coming 2 America."
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