Friday, June 5, 2009

COMING TO AMERICA - Blu-Ray (Paramount 1988) Paramount Home Video

In the early years of his career, the eclectic audacity of Eddie Murphy knew no bounds. A superb comedian with a flair for mimicry, and an unvarnished - though always ultra-clever approach to making us laugh, Murphy was one of the most enigmatic and luminescent of comedy stars from the 1980s.   In hindsight, he instinctively knew where to punctuate a sentence and how to emphasize a nuance - using the whole of his expressive visage - to maximum effect.

Regrettably, Murphy was to leave his 'rawness' behind in later years to become a more 'family friendly' raconteur. It didn't suit his style and the films themselves were often very substandard to his formidable talents. But Murphy's 'rawness' was never abrasive and certainly never without purpose. As he once astutely pointed out, "I can't just do a curse show", illustrating the point thereafter by throwing together virtually every foul word in the English language and then pretending to walk off stage by wishing the audience a good night. Murphy's casual dismissal of the dramatic weight generally ascribed to foul language made it seem not only extremely funny, but ultimately not nearly as bad as we all thought it was supposed to be. No, Eddie Murphy made beautiful music with four letter words, cleverly spaced and even more potently timed to tickle our funny bones to wild distraction.

Based on a story idea supplied by Eddie Murphy, John Landis’ Coming To America (1988) is a superbly crafted romantic comedy that casts Murphy as Prince Akeem of Zamunda – the heir apparent to a lush African province presided over by his proud father, King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) and the Queen (Madge Sinclair). Zamunda is a land of pure fantasy, resplendently bedecked in palms and palatial surroundings. They even have an elephant named Babar. Those familiar with the children's stories will get the joke.

In tweaking the original concept, screenwriters David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein came up with the brilliant idea of allowing their star to invent his own material for several key sequences in the film – most notably the various barber shop sequences presided over almost entirely by various incarnations of humanity played exclusively by Murphy and costar Arsenio Hall, cast as Semmi – the Prince’s royal confident. Coming to America really is a showcase for Eddie Murphy's talents as a chameleon to shine. In retrospect, the cameos he performs apart from the lead seem an escapism from the part of the Prince - arguably, the most forthright and restrained character Eddie Murphy has ever played.

The film opens in the idyllic and resplendent kingdom of Zamunda where it has been decided by King Joffer that his son, Akeem is of age to marry Imani Izzi (Vanessa Bell); Princess of a neighboring kingdom. To be certain, Imani is a sumptuous feast for the eyes – every man’s embodiment of physical desire. One problem – she has been taught not to think for herself; a quality devalued by Akeem who wants a woman to excite his intellect as well as his loins.

Choosing to take a vacation in America before his pending nuptials, Akeem and Semmi are plunked down in the worst neighborhood in Queens where they are literally shunned and/or robbed by the natives. The ‘boys’ are befriended by a local barber (also played by Murphy) who also inadvertently introduces Akeem to his future wife, Lisa McDowell (Shari Headley) a community fundraiser. At a local event presided over by a horny black evangelist (also Murphy) and sponsored by McDowell’s restaurant and the hair weave relaxer ‘Soul Glow’; whose spokes model Darryl Jenks (Eriq LaSalle) also happens to be Lisa’s boyfriend, Akeem and Lisa meet for the first time.

Having set his sights on Lisa, Akeem takes a menial job at her father, Cleo’s (John Amos) fast food restaurant and gradually ingratiates himself into Cleo and Lisa’s favor. In the meantime, Semmi has taken it unto himself to spend money like water in redecorating their shabby apartment – a move that causes King Joffer to make inquiries about his son’s visit and suddenly realize that Akeem’s true purpose in coming to America was to find his own bride.

Of course, this being a comedy, it all ends well with Lisa respecting Akeem as a pauper, then ultimately realizing she has come to love him as a prince. We return to Zamunda on the day of Akeem's marriage, the kingdom rejoicing that the valiant successor to the throne has at last found his bride. Coming To America is one of Eddie Murphy's best movies. It's part fairy-tale/part romantic comedy and yes, part social commentary - all of it neatly packaged and slickly scripted to take advantage of Murphy's craftiness as a great comedian. The vignettes in the barbershop not withstanding - for these play more like asides than intervening narrative construction to move the story along and forward, the plot evolves with an effortless charm that never becomes obvious or strained.

Almost from the moment the film begins, so too do the laughs – multi-layered and superbly crafted. Coming To America arrived at the tail end of Murphy’s supremacy as a comedic successor to the late Richard Pryor. As an actor/star/comedian, Murphy is indeed in rare form – his gamut of bizarre stereotypes crossing both black and white cultural barriers and running riotously amuck of each.

Who can forget Murphy’s take on the Jewish retiree, Saul whose bad humor is so obtuse it’s a riot. Or what about Murphy’s utterly perverted musings as the Rick James inspired evangelist who helps host the fundraiser? After witnessing a bevy of female beauty contestants paraded on stage next to the band ‘Sexual Chocolate’, Murphy’s salivating, grimacing evangelist declares, “I know there is a God after all!” Time and again, Murphy proves that he not only is a superior chameleon but a pure comedy genius on par with Richard Pryor and Robin Williams.

Arsenio Hall, then best known to audiences as the host of his own popular late night talk show in competition with The Tonight Show, acquits himself admirably of being Prince Akeem’s less than experienced court liaise. The rest of the supporting cast is very good indeed, particularly James Earl Jones as the slightly cantankerous and occasionally despondent ruler of this majestic land, and John Amos, who steps in as something of a surrogate in Jones' absence during the middle act of the story. Sol Negrin and Woody Omens’ cinematography creates perfect counterpoints between the fictitious Zamunda and all too real slums of Queens. In the final analysis, Coming To America is great good fun and likely to remain so for many decades to come.

Paramount Home Video’s Blu-Ray offering easily bests its non-anamorphic DVD release of several years ago. It also improves upon the more recent collector’s edition with a slightly more refined image. Colors are beautifully rendered in medium and close up, with fine detail evident in fabric, skin tones and background detail. Moderately disappointing is how long shots tend to suffer from a decidedly softer focus, often slightly blurry – particularly in their background details. Overall, the image will not disappoint and yet there is decidedly something lacking.

The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and quite adequate for this vintage 80s presentation. Extras include new featurettes detailing the creation of the film, Rick Baker’s contributions to make up, the costumes, as well as a vintage sit down with Eddie Murphy and the film’s theatrical trailer presented in hi-def. Highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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