Despite its arrival two years after the surprise success of ‘Crocodile’ Dundee, the similarly premised Coming to America hardly seemed like a knockoff. Sure it is also about a strange foreigner who visits New York City and experiences a comical culture clash, but the 1980s were actually so full of movies of this nature (see also Moscow on the Hudson, Splash, Brother From Another Planet, Big Business, both The Muppets and Jason Take Manhattan and maybe even Big, which along with ‘Crocodile’ Dundee II had just recently come out ahead of this), so it wasn’t a big deal. Besides, with Eddie Murphy at the peak of his career at the time there was no way this thing could fail.
This weekend is the 25th anniversary of the release of Coming to America (specifically yesterday), and although a lot of obvious parts are dated (some of which actually make the movie funnier now), it remains a rather timeless metropolitan fairy tale. It’s still one of the top three Murphy comedies (the other two being Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop, of course), features some amazing make-up work by Rick Baker that would be still be worthy of its Oscar nomination if done today, excellent African dance choreography from little known Paula Abdul and in recent years it provided tons more laughs via the meme in which any dialogue spoken by James Earl Jones is dubbed over scenes of Darth Vader.
As ripe as the plot would seem for a remake, hopefully it never happens. Recently it was reported that Martin Lawrence was redoing it but in reverse, meaning it would follow a working class American who finds out he’s heir to a throne in Africa (there’s actually a real life story like this being presently documented by filmmaker Harry Freeland). Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator is a close facsimile of this mixed with Trading Places, but unofficially. I also never knew there was a TV series spin-off that never went beyond a pilot starring Tommy Davidson. I’d love to see that.
For this week’s Scenes We Love, I’d like to highlight a bunch of favorite moments from this fish out of water classic. And believe me, this isn’t all of the greats, so feel free to mention others below.
The Royal Penis is Clean
Yes, I saw this R-rated comedy in the theater at age 11, and I definitely loved the bit about butt wiping and the gratuitous tub scene for totally immature reasons. But even today this opening sequence still works as broad satire of royal privilege. It’s exaggerated beyond anything that we could believe yet that’s part of its necessity, to be as heightened a level of wealth at a period when excess was already over the top and to provide as much contrast with what Prince Akeem (Murphy) later subjected himself while slumming it in Queens.
“Damn Shame What They Did To That Dog”
And here’s the reversal scene that is particularly effective given the contrasting living situation we saw above. It’s a silly visual gag with cartoonish chalk outlines of a man and a dog and a combination of everything else that could make this appear to be truly the “real fucked up,” worst residence possible for Akeem and Semmi (Arsenio Hall) to experience. Maybe it’s a little too familiar to those of us who have looked at some terrible apartments in NYC, but the view, blood-smeared wall, shared bathroom, rat infestation and definitely police tape are still as ridiculously poor as the wipers and penis cleaners are ridiculously rich.
I never remember how many scenes are set in the barbershop, but it doesn’t matter. They’re all golden. This was the first time Murphy took on multiple characters for a movie — something Richard Pryor had done similarly before and a shtick that would be common for Murphy in the next couple decades. As I mentioned, the make-up is exceptional without being too realistic (we’re really always supposed to know when it’s Murphy and also when it’s Hall). They went above what was necessary by having not only multiple versions of the two leads in the same scene but having Murphy in whiteface. He’d done it on Saturday Night Live, but this was even crazier. He does a better old Billy Crystal character than Crystal does, right? All the barbershop scenes are hilarious, but here’s I think the first one, where they discuss Cassius Clay’s name change to Muhammad Ali. Check out Cuba Gooding, Jr., in his film debut. Also, you’re not going to help but wonder whatever happened to Clint Smith, who plays old barber “Sweets” (the childhood friend of Murphy went on to be a major player behind the scenes for Eddie Murphy Productions).
Good Morning, My Neighbors!
I think this was an obligatory scene for all comedy scripts written in the 1980s set in NYC. At least it sure seems that way. Not that I’m complaining, because I still laugh at this part.
Black Awareness Week (Featuring Randy Watson and Sexual Chocolate)
Among the multiple characters Murphy and Hall give us in this movie, the best are undoubtedly Rev. Brown (Hall) and Jackson Heights’ own Randy Watson (Murphy) during the Black Awareness event. Brown’s oration as he presents the beauty pageant contestants makes me wish Hall had done more movies or even joined a sketch comedy show rather than go on to do his talk show, as important as that program was for its time. And Murphy doing his rendition of “The Greatest Love of All” (another reference of sorts to Muhammad Ali) is the best call back to his days at Saturday Night Live we’ve ever seen on the big screen. It’s no surprise that this, in addition to some other bits in the movie, are really like isolated SNLskits given that screenwriters David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein were on staff at the show during Murphy’s period as a cast member. Because I can’t find a clip of the whole scene all together, here’s just the Watson part, featuring everyone’s favorite back up band, Sexual Chocolate. What’s better, the mic drop or the bonus gestures afterward?
“I Want to Tear You Apart”
More reason to believe Hall is really the best performer in this movie, this is one of my favorite montages in the history of montages. It’s quicker than I ever remember it, too, but each of the women who sit with the two leads at the club are amazing in her own way. I like to think there was just a whole day’s worth of filming as they brought in actress after actress and let their improved audition be their attempt to make it into the bit. It probably wasn’t like that. A casting agent likely knew of the Owens (“ex-Siamese”) twins from their dancing and former film appearances, and the same goes for the rapping Colon twins and everyone else. The climax, of course, is Hall in drag as the woman who wants to tear Akeem apart — and his little friend, too. Best spit-take by an actor responding to himself in another shot ever.
Samuel L. Jackson
25 years ago, we were definitely paying attention to how much of a hero Akeem is in this scene. Maybe we also were laughing at Louie Anderson for absolutely no reason (hey, I was 11, and I’d seen The Wrong Guys). Now it’s all about then-unknown Samuel L. Jackson as the “diseased rhinoceros pizzle (penis)” trying to rob McDowell’s. Isn’t it fun when a scene takes on new significance once a minor actor becomes a star? This time we may even be directly reminded of Jackson’s biggest breakthrough in Pulp Fiction, where he’s on the other end of an eatery hold up.
How is there not a better clip of the Soul Glo commercial online? It’s one of the all-time greatest fake commercials and products, and someone should have uploaded it proper and just let it shine through. It’s so silky smooth. Just let your soul glo.
Oh, and where’s the Soul Glo gag with Darryl’s family on the couch? The Internet is letting me down.
Bonus: Darth Vader Speaking King Jaffe Joffer’s Dialogue