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MOVIE REVIEW : Spare Fare in Eddie Murphy's 'America'

June 29, 1988|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

I suppose we should be grateful for small favors in the hollow and wearying Eddie Murphy fairy tale "Coming to America" (citywide). As a 21-year-old princeling of Zamunda, a mythical African kingdom, Murphy reins in his scatology, making do with a soupcon of bathroom humor. He doesn't bash any of the prime targets of his live shows: gays and women. (Those half-naked serving women who take care of his every function in Zamunda aren't being demeaned--presumably they love attending to the royal privates.) Finally, those with complaints about an actor with Murphy's clout who remains among all-white casts will be pleased that this is virtually an all-black one.

But that's it for the pluses. If this carefully collected cast, which includes James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair as Murphy's parents and John Amos as the father of his American dream girl, had been given anything to work with, there might have been no stopping them. Instead, John Landis, directing from Murphy's original story, has created a plentiful waste of time and money.

The TV-skit screenplay by David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein (described in the press notes as Murphy's favorite writers on "Saturday Night Live") is full of anemic one-liners combed over the bald spot where a solid story should be.

Regal, generous and (somehow) liberated, Prince Akeem squirms at his parents' choice of an old-country bride, a woman (Vanessa Bell) brought up to worship and serve. Impulsively, the prince takes off for America in search of a woman who will "engage his intellect as well as his loins." Presumably, she will also overlook his ineptitude at bathing himself or putting on his own socks.

Ex-TV comedian Arsenio Hall plays Semmi, the Prince's jaunty right-hand man. Arriving to conduct their search in Queens (a little joke, that), the men settle in an apartment that looks as if it should have last words scrawled on its walls in blood, and get sweeper's jobs at a McDonald's clone called McDowell's.

Both comedians' flair for mimicry allows them to play a handful of heavily disguised characters: ancient barbers, tooth-sucking fire-and-brimstone preachers, processed-haired lounge act singers, even an elderly white Jewish kibitzer from the barbershop on the block. Initially funny, this multiple-character business becomes so unsettling that when a real character actor appears, you find yourself squinting at his hairline or his teeth, trying to catch the ringer.

(That's the way it is with Murphy's gentle, courtly prince. You wait for the zinger--but this is a new, ground-breaking Murphy, seemingly taking pains not to offend. Instead, he stays perfectly in character and on a pleasantly blissed-out wavelength throughout.)

Both men are phenomenal at these impersonations, although the real star is makeup designer Rick Baker. However, these short bursts of eccentric characterization work like showy roadblocks, stopping what meandering action there is dead in its tracks.

It's the same with that monstrous musical number back home in Zamunda. If it were funnier, it might be taken as a parody of all those feather-and-loincloth ritual sacrifice numbers in Tarzan or Jon Hall movies. As it is, the satire is fuzzy and interminable, and the number, like everything else, is mortifying.

By the movie's end, Landis is reduced to cutting to cute reaction shots from miniature poodles for laughs. That an Eddie Murphy movie would come to this.

The various young, first-time actresses are lovely and a little less interesting than Melmac dinnerware. The production design in Zamunda falls woefully short of the magic needed, looking neither magical nor rich but unaccountably ugly as well as faked.

James Earl Jones proves that he is probably the only actor in America who can wear the skin of a full-grown lion--jewels in its eyes, its tail in its mouth--over street clothes and not look like a damn fool. But there's not a thing he can do with this flaccid, foolish film.

'COMING TO AMERICA'

A Paramount Pictures Presentation of an Eddie Murphy production of a Landis/Folsey Film. Executive producers Leslie Belzberg, Mark Lipsky. Producers Robert D. Wachs, George Folsey Jr. Director John Landis. Screenplay David Sheffield, Barry W. Blaustein from a story by Eddie Murphy. Music Nile Rodgers. Production design Richard Macdonald. Camera Woody Omens. Editors Malcolm Campbell, George Folsey Jr. Special makeup Rick Baker. Costumes Deborah Nadoolman. With Murphy, Arsenio Hall, James Earl Jones, John Amos, Madge Sinclair, Shari Headley, Paul Bates, Allison Dean, Eriq LaSalle, Vanessa Bell, Louie Anderson, Frankie Faison.

Running time: 1 hours, 54 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).

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