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Coming to America: Special Collector's Edition

It's a shame that Eddie Murphy now equates sweetness with PG-13 antics; aside from the immensely enjoyable The Nutty Professor, his latter day efforts at four-quadrant crowd-pleasers are resoundingly mirthless. And it's not just the viewer who isn't having fun. In films like Showtime, The Haunted Mansion and the especially execrable Daddy Day Care, Murphy is in pure, depressing paycheck mode; clearly, the star believes he's hit upon the secret to doing just enough for the audience's $10-a-pop enjoyment. That they keep coming back — as 2007's widely loathed Norbit proved — only encourages Murphy to keep not trying. While this may be fine for his personal bottom line as well as the studio's, it's further tarnishing what was once a brilliant career and, perhaps, atrophying the gifts that made him the biggest American movie star of the 1980s. Eddie Murphy is simply not a PG-13 kind of guy (unless he's working with a clever writer like Steve Martin or a great director like Bill Condon). If only he'd realize that the multiple-character shtick and R-rated comedy aren't mutually exclusive, then maybe he'd get back to making sweetly vulgar classics like Coming to America — which, coincidentally, was the last R-rated Eddie Murphy comedy to gross over $100 million. Derided at the time of its theatrical release for being inauthentically goodnatured and, worse, misogynistic, the film now seems like a bastion of humanitarianism. Coming to America's story — which was infamously purloined from the newspaper columnist Art Buchwald (for more fascinating reading on that, check out Pierce O'Donnell and Dennis McDougal's Fatal Subtraction) is essentially a fairy tale interspersed with what was then the comedian's trademark bawdy humor.

Murphy plays Prince Akeem, heir to the throne of Zamunda, a fictional African country lorded over by the resplendently leonine King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones). As is the the custom in Zamunda, Akeem is to be presented with a bride on his twenty-first birthday; however, the entitlement-weary Prince wants no part of this tradition. Confiding to his lifelong pal Semmi (Arsenio Hall), Akeem insists, "I want a woman that will arouse my intellect as well as my loins". So, after a hilariously overblown tribal ceremony (which gives the ever impish director John Landis an opportunity to stage a lengthy, pace-killing musical number), Akeem and Semmi set off for America and, specifically, New York City, and, even more specifically, Queens (where else to find a woman fit for a future King?). It's here that the film becomes an uproarious riff on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (one of Landis's favorite stories) with the King immersing himself in the cold, harsh world of the commoner. Since Akeem seeks a woman who loves him for who he is (which is where the charges of misogyny might get a bit of traction, as the unfailingly decent Akeem is dictating the terms of his marriage with scant regard for the feelings of his eventual wife), he takes a temporary vow of poverty, thus forcing the boys to set up shop in a particularly rundown section of Queens. Though poor on the surface, the ghetto-bound characters depicted in Coming to America are either comfortably Middle Class (e.g. John Amos's restaurateur, Cleo McDowell) or cheerfully low class (e.g. the quarrelsome barbershop quartet that includes Murphy and Hall in Rick Baker-ized latex.) Some might find this discomfiting, but to pay too much attention to the real life woes of late-80s New York City would be to break the fairy tale spell (the following year, a young filmmaker named Spike Lee would somewhat successfully address the racial unease threatening to tear the entire town apart). Interestingly, the film works sensationally well even though its major dramatic arc concerning Akeem's search for an ideal mate is a complete nonstarter, despite an winningly awful performance from Shari Headle. Only a great comedic performer could overcome such narrative deficiencies, and that's what Murphy (and, to a lesser degree, Hall) proves he is time and again throughout the course of the picture. Coming to America might actually be Eddie Murphy's most quotable movie; from tone-deaf soul crooner Randy Watson ("Sexual Chocolate!") to Clarence the barber ("Every time I start talkin' about boxing, a white man got to pull Rocky Marciano out their ass!") to the spectacularly Jewish Saul ("If a man wants to call himself Muhammad Ali, I say 'Muhammad Ali'!"), Eddie has never been more explosively inventive. And not only is he having fun, he's also not having to monitor his f-bomb droppage, which is key. This is Eddie unleashed, and it is a glorious thing to behold. And it is sorely missed.

Paramount Home Entertainment presents Coming to America in a solid anamorphic (1.85:1) transfer with equally solid Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The four new featurettes — "Prince-ipal Photography: The Coming Together of America" (24 min.), "Fit for Akeem: The Costumes of Coming to America" (18 min.), "Character Building: The Many Faces of Rick Baker" (13 min.) and "Composing America: The Musical Talents of Nile Rodgers" (11 min.) — are all fairly informative and entertaining despite their pronounced lack of Eddie and Arsenio. To remedy this, the disc's producers have included a five-minute, on-set interview (incorrectly cited as having been conducted in 1989) which is strangely dominated by an outrageously smug Arsenio; if Landis is to be believed, this was Eddie's ego-run-amok stage, so it's odd to see him deferring to his sidekick throughout. It's almost as if Arsenio were auditioning for a talk show or something. Also included are photos, a theatrical trailer and adverts for other Paramount product. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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