Cult Movie: Eddie Murphy's original Coming To America still a star-turn comedy triumph

Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall in the 1988 comedy classic Coming To America
Ralph McLean

Coming To America

WITH its lavish if ultimately pointless 2021 sequel Coming 2 America arriving on streaming platforms last week, it feels like a good time to give the original Coming To America a little love and affection.

Arriving on cinema screens a whopping 33 years ago and now available again in a stunning 4K Blu-ray transfer from Paramount, it's a comedy that still stands up despite its age.

The whole 'fish out of water' shtick may feel old hat now – in all honesty, it was old hat in the 80s as well – but the cultural gags and manic main-man turn from Eddie Murphy as an African Prince who leaves his homeland to seek out a bride on the mean streets of New York still works.

As a showcase for a comedian at the peak of his powers, it's perfect, and it still raises enough laughs to make it a minor comedy classic of its kind today.

Murphy was on fire by the time it hit cinemas in 1988. He'd made his mark with 48-Hours, followed it up with Trading Places and consolidated his position as the King of Comedy with Beverley Hills Cop. Coming To America merely confirmed his superstar status. Producing, writing and almost directing it makes it a hugely personal film for Murphy and he carries every scene with a wild intensity he's rarely displayed since.

That old 'fish out of water' format, which Murphy had previously explored to great effect in the likes of Trading Places and even Beverly Hills Cop, makes this old-fashioned tale of finding true love at the heart of the American dream a little predictable, but there are some genuinely amusing scenes of cultural confusion here.

The notoriously difficult star milks every comic scene to maximum effect. He's particularly good when he's allowed to cut loose in the multiple roles he plays, with the barbershop figures standing out in particular.

Murphy is ably assisted throughout by Arsenio Hall as his faithful servant (who turns in much funnier performances in the other parts he delivers) and a whole raft of mostly African-American actors like Cuba Gooding Jr and Samuel L Jackson who would go on to much greater things in the years to come.

However, Murphy's masterstroke here was to reunite with his Trading Places director John Landis. While much of Murphy's magic is provided by the comedian himself, the dialogue and cultural snapshots of being black in 1980s America are note-perfect throughout, it's Landis who keeps the story on track while still exploiting the manic energy on screen.

Some overly colourful language issues and a touch of nudity mean it's a comedy aimed at adult audiences, but really Coming To America is a traditional and wholesome family film at heart. The core message of true love winning out despite the odds is what makes this formulaic but entertaining all the same.

Fresh, funny and capturing its star at the very top of his game, the original Coming To America is everything its newly released sequel would love to be, but frankly isn't. Revisit it with confidence this weekend.

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