This is one of my favorite Eddie Murphy movies, and one of both his and John Landis’s last good ones. Trading Places is better, but this simple story of an African prince looking for his queen- in Queens of all places- is a rightful late 80s classic. It showcases outer borough New York like The Blues Brothers did Chicago, is delightfully quotable, and shows Eddie and Arsenio Hall back when they were both very funny and knew that dressing up as multiple characters is better as a quick gag than an entire movie. It also has bit parts with then-unknown Cuba Gooding Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson, John Amos in one of his best roles, James Earl Jones fresh from retirement as Vader playing another king with a stentorian voice, and a cute rom-com story that never gets too sappy. What’s not to like?
We begin in Zamunda, where Prince Akeem (Murphy) wakes on his 21st birthday. He is pampered beyond belief, and we get to see the absurd reality of being so rich that you don’t have to wipe your own backside, and have three gorgeous women bathe you every morning. But like anything, too much is too much- and Akeem wants to experience life- real life- something he has been denied for far too long. When he meets the bride who’s been picked for him and raised her entire life to serve him, he asks his father- King Jaffe Joffer, played with bombastic relish by James Earl Jones- for a respite. How can he choose a wife when he has never even tied his own shoes?
Before he can protest, the King assumes he wants to “sow his royal oats,” and postpones the wedding for 40 days, so he can travel the world and sate his every erotic desire. His servant Semmi (Arsenio Hall) is delighted, and soon they are off to search for a bride worthy of Zamunda’s only prince. And when looking at a map of New York, they find the perfect place- Queens. It’s to John Landis’s credit that he actually films in Queens instead of Toronto, or Jersey, or even Manhattan. ’80s New York wasn’t the Disneyfied place it is today, and we see it warts and all. But we get a portrait of the city at the time, and like the late ’70s Chicago that served as the perfect backdrop for The Blues Brothers, the setting is as important a character as the stars.
Once Akeem and Semmi get settled in “the most common part” of Queens, they find a shitty apartment run by a gruff landlord above a barbershop, and jobs at “McDowell’s” restaurant, run by Mr. McDowell (John Amos), at odds with the more famous and similar-sounding fast food joint we all know. From here on, the plot is classic screwball rom-com, with a rich but sleazy suitor, the father who knows best, and the prince masquerading as a pauper, or at least, an African student. We know Akeem will end up with Lisa- McDowell’s beautiful and independent daughter- but the story uses subtle distractions to keep the tension up.
Landis gives us plenty of “cute cuts” like reaction shots of a poodle, bums, and little children; Eddie breaking the fourth wall; and corny one-off background gags on New York City to keep the comic energy lively. It’s probably the last time Eddie was really funny for a long while. Part of the reason is that he has no muzzle on- the cursing is loud and wide. From the moment Akeem stands on his balcony and declares, “Good morning my neighbors!” and they reply “Hey, fuck you!” we know that Landis is capitalizing on the raw reputation Murphy’s stand-up act. They spend their cussin’ coin wisely and don’t overdo it, except perhaps in the barbershop scenes, where Murphy and Arsenio play cranky old men telling tall tales.
This is some of Murphy’s best multiple-role work, and Arsenio almost tops him. Here Murphy plays the cranky old barber and a cranky old Jewish patron, and even argues with himself. And it’s funny even when we don’t recognize he’s talking to himself. The final joke he tells at the end credits is so good that it works even on its own. Another scene where Semmi & Akeem go to a club and listen to crazy women talk about what they want is even better. When Arsenio is in drag, Murphy can barely keep a straight face, that’s how funny it is.
It’s one of those rare comedies that relies on character, and rolls toward a pre-ordained and satisfying ending without insulting our intellect. There are no long scenes where someone gets offended, because the other person doesn’t say one thing. Akeem keeps up his ruse as a poor student a bit too long, but there’s not one scene where he could just admit it, and everything would be okay. Landis knows better than that. And everything is solved perfectly when Akeem’s mom, Queen Aoleon (Madge Sinclair), shows how wives of powerful men get their way by making the kings think they’re getting their way.
The movie was originally conceived by columnist Art Buchwald, whose idea got stolen by the studio. Because if you believe something this good was written by the guys who did Police Academy 2, you’re crazy. It’s got Landis all over it. I’m glad Buchwald finally got a settlement from the studio, meager as it might be. And it doesn’t tarnish this great comedy. Even better, Landis manages to give us another look at what happened to the Dukes from Trading Places before it’s over. And I haven’t even mentioned Louie Anderson, the family who sells Soul-Glo hair tonic, Arsenio’s hilarious preacher character, or Eddie as the lead singer of Sexual Chocolate. Put it all together and you have an unforgettable comedy you can go back to again and again.
Beers Required to Enjoy: none!
Could it be remade today? don’t even think about it
Quotability Rating: ludicrously high
Cheese Factor: Zamunda cheese
High Points: too many to count
Low Point: it’s over?
Gratuitous Boobies: 3 naked girls in a hot tub. Yay.