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Coming to America (1988)

Paramount Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 6/5/2007

All Ratings out of

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 6/7/2007

It's a fact of life; people change. Sometime this can for the worse, and at other times for the better. Following a string of hits, Eddie Murphy's career began to take a downturn in the early 90s and it wasn't until he re-invented himself with more family-friendly fare, such as Shrek and Daddy Day Care that he became a big star again. However, in that time, the tabloids reported that Murphy had become diva-like. Thus, it's good that we have his early films, such as Coming to America on DVD to remind us of Murphy's early days.

Murphy stars in Coming to America as Prince Akeem, a member of the royal family of Zamunda, a country in Africa. As the film opens, Akeem has just turned 21, and thus his parents, King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) and Queen Aoleon (Madge Sinclair) expect him to meet and marry his pre-arranged bride. But, Akeem hungers for something more. He wants to meet a woman who is both pretty and smart and fall in love. He convinces his father that he wants to travel before marriage, and King Joffer approves. Akeem and his servant/friend Semmi (Arsenio Hall) then fly to New York.

Once in New York, the duo settle in Queens, as Akeem wants a woman who comes from a middle-class background. After scouting the area, Akeem spots Lisa (Shari Headley), and is instantly attracted to her. Instead of approaching her and revealing that he is a wealthy prince, Akeem and Semmi take jobs in the restaurant owned by Lisa's father so that Akeem can win her heart. But, this won't be easy, as Akeem, who has been waited on since birth, learns to do everything on his own.

Members of Generation Y (and younger) may find this hard to believe, but during the 80s, Eddie Murphy was considered one of the most (if not the most) foul-mouthed comedians around. Murphy became infamous for his use of profanity in his shows, and he made R-rated movies. Yes, there was a time when the biggest stars in Hollywood made R-rated comedies which were aimed at adults. (Films such as The 40-year Old Virgin and Knocked Up are bringing back this trend.) Murphy’s film of this era typically guaranteed a good time, and Coming to America is no exception. In fact, it may be the most wholly satisfying film of this part of Murphy’s career.

At first glance, one of the most pleasing aspects of Coming to America is the simple, yet very accessible central plot. Essentially, the movie has the structure of a fairy tale. Prince Akeem, bored with life, travels to a distant land to find his true love. Once there, he must adapt to this strange land’s customs, while hiding his true identity. After going through a series of trials, he can find true love. The plot features a hero (Akeem), a princess (Lisa), a villain (Darryl), and a sidekick (Semmi). Storywise, Coming to America doesn’t stack very much on top of this, and the streamlined narrative aids in the film’s appeal.

However, a great deal has been added to the characters and situations in the movie, mostly due to the comedic talents of Eddie Murphy. While Prince Akeem and Semmi remain fairly generic characters, the characters around them are very exaggerated, over-the-top and funny. Through the magic of Rick Baker’s special effects makeup, Murphy and Hall each play three additional characters. The scenes in the barber shop, where Murphy plays both a barber and a old Jewish man, and Hall plays a older barber, are hilarious and laid the groundwork for the dinner table scene in The Nutty Professor. Whereas Akeem is a very quiet, and laid-back guy, Murphy’s other characters (the ones in which he’s in make-up) are loud, boisterous, and often slightly insane. (Clarence may get the best lines -- the boxing argument is classic -- but Randy Watson is my favorite. “Sexual Chocolate!”) Those who came to see the energetic and raw Eddie Murphy who they had come to love may have been disappointed at first, but once the story switches to Queens, Murphy delivers. Murphy has come to be known as somewhat of an egomaniac, so it’s interesting to note that the majority of laughs in Coming to America don’t come from Murphy’s leading character, but from his alter-egos and the supporting cast. Perhaps Murphy wanted to focus more on being the romantic leading man.

When considering the classic comedies of the 1980s, Coming to America must have a spot on the list. The movie gets off to a somewhat slow start (this is a trend with director John Landis’ comedies), but it then becomes a comic tour de force as every actor turns in a great performance, while Murphy and Hall turn in four! The movie set the standard for Eddie Murphy’s multiple character films, which continues to this day (See Norbit). But, more importantly, Coming to America is a sweet and uncluttered film which delivers an inviting story and plenty of laughs.

Coming to America goes trans-Atlantic on DVD courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. This newly released DVD replaces the previous version from 1999. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 Tvs. The image here shows the pros and cons of digital transfers for film from the 80s. The image is fairly sharp and clear, showing only a mild amount of grain in the daytime shots. I noted some very minor defects from the source material. As is common, the picture looks somewhat flat at times and a tad dark. I’ve noticed this with several films from this era. The picture looks fine, but you wouldn’t look at it and think “Wow, that must be from a DVD!” The disc features a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. The track offers clear dialogue and sound effects. Stereo effects are present and noticeable. I only heard a few surround sound effects and no overt subwoofer action.

This new special edition DVD contains some interesting extras. We start with “Prince-ipal Photography: The Coming Together of America” (25 minutes). This featurette has comments from director John Landis, producer/editor George Folsey, Jr. and writers David Sheffield and Barry Blaustein. This group (filmed separately) reminisces about the movie, offering insight into the script development, casting, and filming. Landis does touch on the fact that he and Murphy didn’t see eye-to-eye during filming, but he never stoops to muck-raking. Some of the most interesting stories pertain to the creation of the McDowell’s restaurant. Costume designer Deborah Nadoolman takes about the wardrobe in “Fit for Akeem: The Costumes of Coming to America” (18 minutes). In “Character Building: The Many faces of Rick Baker” (13 minutes) we get a look at the first make-up test on Murphy and behind-the-scenes of the make-up being applied. Musician Nile Rogers is profiled in “Composing America: The Musical Talents of Nile Rogers” (11 minutes). “A Vintage Sit-down with Eddie & Arsenio” is a difficult to watch interview from 1998, as the duo don’t take the questions seriously (and it’s not funny). The extras are rounded out by the THEARICAL TRAILER and a PHOTO GALLERY.

Review Copyright 2007 by Mike Long