The best thing I can force myself to say about Coming 2 America is that it's very easy to imagine it turning out worse. Much worse, even; while the Eddie Murphy who starred in the beloved 1988 comedy Coming to America (incidentally, sequel titles that can be distinguished from the original visually but not audibly, that's a new one to me) was near, or even at the very peak of his powers - I think it would take very little effort to defend calling that film the best Murphy starring vehicle - the Eddie Murphy who has shown up to this much-belated (and then delayed even more by the COVID-19 pandemic) sequel has been a lazy, unpleasant simulacrum of himself for a great many years, even before he basically took the 2010s off of acting altogether. I'm no fan of the Coming 2 America we got, but a Coming 2 America whose star was telegraping his hostility and boredom towards the project as openly as he did in Norbit or The Haunted Mansion? You don't want to talk about that kind of thing even in furtive whispers.

Alright, so the good news: we do not have a disaster on our hands. That is close to being the entirety of the good news. There's more to being a good film comedy than simply failing to be atrocious, after all, and it's not surprising that Coming 2 America can't rise up that level. It is, after all, a 33-years-later sequel whose primary reason for being is to shamelessly exploit the viewer's nostalgia - and while I appreciate that the daisy-chain of writers involved in getting this from concept to final draft put in an effort to make sure that the story would be comprehensible to someone who hadn't seen the original, I shudder to imagine what a hollow, lifeless experience this must be to a viewer who hadn't seen or had no affection for the 1988 film. Pretty much everything Coming 2 America does is in reference to Coming to America: gags are directly repeated, sometimes down to the precise wording; gags are referred to and expanded on gently; virtually every significant actor from the first movie who hasn't since died comes back for a cameo (hi, Louie Anderson! I'm so sorry I thought you were dead), including some who literally only appeared in a single shot in 1988; the drama re-runs much of the same conflict; and, in general, anything that seems "new" is almost certainly just the precise inversion of something from the first movie, so even when it appears to be breaking away from its model, it's still doing it in a way that draws on the viewer's knowledge of its predecessor.

The shocking thing is that I wish it was much, much more shameless in doing this. The most unabashed, even grotesque one-to-one re-enactments of Coming to America come in the sequel's first act, which is literally the same thing: Prince Akeem (Murphy) of the African kingdom Zamunda and his manservant Semmi (Arsenio Hall) travel to Queens, New York, where Akeem's prim but joyful regal grace mashes up against the rough world of the United States. They especially do this in the form of interacting with a barbershop full of cantankerous old men (played by Murphy and Hall in latex), all of whom should absolutely be dead by now, but of course the whole thing is an exercise in "give me more of the exact thing I liked three decades ago", not in telling a coherent story. And the reality is, well, this worked in 1988, and it basically works in 2021. There's a definite fatigue and shagginess to the filmmaking (but if we are being honest, under the lackadaisical hands of director John Landis, Coming to America was hardly an airtight, high-energy piece of cinema), and while Hall is all but radiating pure joy at getting to return to these roles and these jokes and this world, Murphy is a little stiff in the comic joints, as it were. By post-'80s Murphy standards, this is very fine work, to be clear; but it lacks the utter ease and once-in-a-generation charisma of the actor in his prime. But accommodating for the addition of time and the fact that director Craig Brewer (whose last project was also a Murphy vehicle, 2019's Dolemite Is My Name, which is probably the best thing the actor has done in the 21st Century) is too obviously besotted with the material as a gushing fanboy who's plainly not going to make hard choices, and grading it against the horrible standards of American film comedy in the 2010s and 2020s, and you know what, this is actually kind of charming. Redundant, but charming.

Then we get to the actual story: Akeem needs a male heir, what with his aging father (James Earl Jones, who was very obviously not on the same set as the rest of the cast) about to die, making him the king of Zamunda. But he and his wife Lisa (Shari Headley) have only three daughters - Meeka (KiKi Layne, given absolutely nothing to do worthy of her time), Omma (Bella Murphy, Eddie's daughter), and Tinashe (Akiley Love) - and the law is the law. Fortunately, in a development that cannot possibly be squared with the events of the first movie, it turns out that Akeem was drugged and unwittingly had sex with a woman named Mary Junson (Leslie Jones) back in 1988, and that incident produced a son, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler). So Akeem and Semmi just need to find the Junsons and whisk them away to Africa, which takes something like seven minutes of screen time, and then comes the same culture clash as last time, only in reverse: however is a streetwise 31-year-old ticket scalper going to adjust to the plush, ritualistic life of traditional African royalty? Especially with a long-lost dad trying to force him to be something he's not?

In other words, this isn't Akeem's film, after all, it's Lavelle's. He gets the character arc (more or less the same one Akeem had in 1988), he gets the significant plot beats, he gets... not the jokes, because frankly the character just isn't funny, and Fowler is a very bland screen presence who does nothing to force humor onto the material if it wasn't there to start with. Murphy's original idea was for Tracy Morgan to play Lavelle, which was supposedly shot down because Hall thought that was the most ridiculous bullshit (Morgan is seven years younger than Murphy), which is of course exactly why it was the right call, and as much as Hall is one of the only sources of unabashed joy in the movie, shame on him for standing in the way of comedy. Morgan still shows up, as Lavelle's crude uncle, but like pretty much every character who isn't Lavelle or Akeem, he gets very little screen time to speak of; this is in fact one of Coming 2 America's biggest flaws. Hall, Jones, and Morgan are all doing terrific work, and Snipes as the threatening warlord of the neighboring country (given the pleasantly stupid name Nextdoria) is almost as good as they are, though not as good as he was in Dolemite; but the film, damned be its name, doesn't really want to do anything with them. Hall, who is every bit as important to the legacy of Coming to America as Murphy, frankly, barely even appears once they return to Africa. It's all just scene after scene of Murphy playing against his strengths as a boring old square who has a bug up his ass about the rules, and Fowler doing absolutely nothing to hold any sort of attention or do more than simply stroll through the ancient clichés of the scenario.

With that as its central dynamic, I have a hard time imagining Coming 2 America ever working, but Brewer and company certainly aren't helping. As is confirmed by the outtakes running through the end credits - but it was definitely no surprise to have the confirmation - none of this was shot in New York (or, obviously, Africa) but on green-screen soundstages in Atlanta, and the lack of presence is tangible. It's a very shiny, shallow movie, too bright and sharp, with too many obvious CGI backgrops and animals (I hated the CGI elephant who gets a pretty substantial shot all to himself, from the bottom of my soul; then came the CGI lion who made the elephant look pretty great in comparison), and not even the feeling of genuine, if misguided spectacle that Landis brought to the table. That is to say: there are big royal dance routines, again, but they have a tinny, ersatz quality here. Just about the only element of craft that works at all are Ruth E. Carter's wonderful costumes, a fine sequel to her Oscar-winning work in Black Panther; less openly fantastic, but still based in an idea of Africa as a mood rather than a collection of specific real-world countries, treated nevertheless with great respect and stateliness. Take those away, and you take away literally everything worth looking at; and with neither visual craft nor well-written jokes on its side, that leaves Coming 2 America with essentially nothing to recommend itself.