Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Fresh Prince: COMING 2 AMERICA

In 1988, Prince Akeem of the small fictional African nation of Zamunda came to America, hoping to find a wife. It resulted in an amusing-enough culture-clash comedy that benefited from a star turn from Eddie Murphy at the early height of his powers, and the big budget Hollywood gloss that makes any even halfway decent comedy from the days of shooting on film look just a little bit better than the digital non-style style that passes for big screen comedy these days. Now it’s the latest 30-year-old comedy to get a belated sequel in Coming 2 America. Although this time it’s shot bright and flat like a sitcom, returning screenwriters Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield (with an assist from Black-ish’s Kenya Barris) have retained the original charms while dialing back some of the raunch and retrograde gender politics. Director Craig Brewer (not for nothing a better director than the original’s John Landis) finds a mellower key for a surprisingly sweet goof that flips the dynamics in clever ways.

It finds Akeem is now King of Zamunda, but without a male heir. In this male-dominated monarchy, that might cause some trouble about lines of succession, even though his hyper-competent and confident daughters are clearly some fine royal specimens capable of leading. For one thing, they’re all excellent fighters — his oldest is even The Old Guard’s KiKi Layne, so you know she can take care of herself. Still, the King’s hopes for a son are answered by the revelation that he fathered a son off-screen during the last movie. Surprise! (His best friend (Arsenio Hall) vaguely remembers the details.) So the movie’s about a thirty-year-old from Queens (Jermaine Fowler), with mom (Leslie Jones) and uncle (Tracy Morgan) in tow, turning up in the palace somewhat ready to claim his place in the royal family. (Some Princess Diaries crash courses might apply.) Though it threatens to become a loud romp, the movie is more interested in a mellow, low-key vibe, letting family dramas just sentimental enough ring out in a comic key surrounded by some good gags, and even a few musical numbers.

The cast keeps it as pleasant as the design of Zamunda — in retrospect a Wakanda spoof avant la lettre — is pleasing to the eye. They’re decked out in Ruth E. Carter’s finest patterns and styles, a little Black Panther here, tribal patterns, flowing fabrics, and elaborate jewelry there. That these comic performers carry out their silly little bits of business and amusing patter in this stunning wardrobe adds to the charms. Above all, it’s nice to see Murphy back in a comedy that plays to his strengths. It’s a perfect blend of the wilder energy of his early roles and the gentler family fare he aged into. There’s some impish sparkle in his eyes (especially in his under-makeup multiple roles reprising the barbershop jokesters from the first film), and a comfortable fatherly cuddliness to his paternal interests in the plot. And it’s poignant to see his dawning awareness of a need to push back on the patriarchy that forces him to ignore his wonderful daughters in favor of a son he barely knows. Yet best of all, perhaps, is his willingness to cede some of the spotlight to Fowler’s Prince Lavelle Junson of Queens, an appealing performance that’s in a slightly different register from Akeem. He plays the culture clash here, bringing a New York swagger to the formality of the palace. He gets a more earnest rom-com plot as he’s torn between a stunning princess (Teyana Taylor) from neighboring country Nexdoria (maybe too lightly treated for being run by a peacocking warlord (a game, energetically goofy Wesley Snipes) and his child soldiers), a match that might make good political sense, and a more relatable court stylist (Nomzamo Mbatha), who might be better for him personally. It's serious, but cute.

The whole picture is uneven, with some jokes flat and a few conceits a tad under-cooked, but the project has enough charms that I found it hard to resist. Brewer keeps the tone on track, with the simple sitcom staging inviting enough emotional investment without stamping out laughs, which in turn keep the more serious geopolitical allusions at bay. This is a character piece, not a world building endeavor or cultural argument beyond the softly insistent gender balancing. The ensemble is on the same chill wavelength, resisting overt farce for something more relaxed, an amusing and amiable consideration of generational conflict wrapped up in semi-serious stakes for this never-quite-believable kingdom. It honors the original in its throwback appeal—a reminder of a time when a movie could be a couple good star turns, some funny supporting roles, and a simple high concept executed well enough.

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