Beware Murphy’s Law: BRIAN VINER reviews comedy sequel Coming 2 America

Coming 2 America (12)

Verdict: Hit-and-miss sequel

Rating:

Moxie (12)

Verdict: Cliched but smart

Rating:

At what point does an overdue sequel become an ill-starred sequel? It doesn’t seem to be simply a matter of years.

More than half a century after the original, Mary Poppins Returns (2018) yielded box-office numbers to please everyone at the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank and beyond. But after a mere 35-year gap, and despite being pretty darned good, Blade Runner 2049 stumbled.

The success of long-delayed sequels is not always determined by quality, nor by appetite. I don’t recall a clamour for a new Mary Poppins and it was a film I didn’t greatly care for, but it still worked £250 million worth of magic.

Which brings me to Coming 2 America. We haven’t exactly been shrieking for it, but should we be glad it’s here? Yes and no, but mainly no, despite a cast list that makes you smile just to look at it, with Morgan Freeman and Gladys Knight playing themselves. 

Director Craig Brewer, along with stars Eddie Murphy (pictured above, starring in Coming 2 America) and Arsenio Hall, plainly needed no reminding that sensibilities are very different now from those that greeted Coming To America in 1988

Director Craig Brewer, along with stars Eddie Murphy (pictured above, starring in Coming 2 America) and Arsenio Hall, plainly needed no reminding that sensibilities are very different now from those that greeted Coming To America in 1988

Director Craig Brewer, along with stars Eddie Murphy (pictured above, starring in Coming 2 America) and Arsenio Hall, plainly needed no reminding that sensibilities are very different now from those that greeted Coming To America in 1988

Making sequels to 1980s comedies, without wanting to give Tom Cruise any ideas, is a risky business. Times have changed and director Craig Brewer, along with stars Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall, plainly needed no reminding that sensibilities are very different now from those that greeted Coming To America in 1988. 

Feminism is duly a big part of the new film’s strained exuberance. We could call it Coming MeToo America.

Murphy and Hall take the same multiple roles as in the first film, led by the former’s Crown Prince Akeem, who becomes monarch of the remote African country of Zamunda when his father King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones, reprising his original role at the grand old age of 90) finally kicks the royal bucket.

So who will take over as heir to the throne? Akeem and his wife Lisa (Shari Headley), formerly plain Lisa McDowell from Queens, have only daughters, and ancient Zamundan laws of primogeniture kick in when Akeem discovers to his amazement that he has an illegitimate son back in New York, conceived all those years ago during a drug-induced tryst of which he has no memory.

To stop rascally General Izzi (Wesley Snipes) from neighbouring Nextdoria muscling in on the Zamundan throne by marrying his own boy to one of the royal daughters, King Akeem and his best friend Semmi (Hall) head back to America, find his grown-up son Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler) and whisk him and his raucously uncouth mother Mary (Leslie Jones) to Zamunda. 

What then unfolds is a flip, more or less, of the 1988 plot, with a streetwise New Yorker this time pratfalling through the mysteries of Zamundan society. But the comedy never worked as well that way round in the fish-out-of-water Crocodile Dundee films, and so it is here. Call it Murphy’s Law.

Teyana Taylor and Wesley Snipes in Coming 2 America. The success of long-delayed sequels is not always determined by quality, nor by appetite, writes Brian Viner

Teyana Taylor and Wesley Snipes in Coming 2 America. The success of long-delayed sequels is not always determined by quality, nor by appetite, writes Brian Viner

Teyana Taylor and Wesley Snipes in Coming 2 America. The success of long-delayed sequels is not always determined by quality, nor by appetite, writes Brian Viner 

There are a few riotous sequences, one of which arrives promisingly early in the form of the old king’s lavish funeral, which he insists should take place while he is still alive to enjoy it. Gladys Knight performs, which is a hoot.

However, the original film was billed as ‘laugh-a-minute’, and the ratio this time is more like a laugh every quarter of an hour. Murphy is still an engaging performer, especially in his two New York barbershop guises.

But either standards have plummeted since 1988, or we used to be much easier to please. Either way, Coming 2 America needs more than a fix of crowd-pleasing feminism, whereby Zamunda’s law of succession eventually changes in favour of Akeem’s eldest daughter Meeka (KiKi Layne), to make it a 2021 hit.

Moxie offers more of the same but in a cleverer, more appealing and much more insistent way. Amy Poehler’s film, which has resounding echoes of recent coming-of-age movies such as Lady Bird (2017) and Booksmart (2019), approaches the issue of high-school sexism about as gingerly as a speeding truck.

Hadley Robinson starring as Vivian Carter in Moxie. She begins a fierce underground campaign in response to a deeply sexist school culture

Hadley Robinson starring as Vivian Carter in Moxie. She begins a fierce underground campaign in response to a deeply sexist school culture

Hadley Robinson starring as Vivian Carter in Moxie. She begins a fierce underground campaign in response to a deeply sexist school culture

Hadley Robinson plays Vivian Carter, a reserved teenager voted ‘Most Obedient’ by her classmates at Rockport High. She begins a fierce underground campaign in response to a deeply sexist school culture tolerated even by the ineffectual head (Marcia Gay Harden) and embodied by the macho, arrogant football captain (Patrick Schwarzenegger).

Some of the characterisation veers towards the cartoonish, and if you’re tired of U.S. high-school movie cliches then this is certainly no place to escape them. But films-with-messages can be shrill and this one isn’t. Poehler (who also plays Vivian’s mother) keeps it ticking along with wit and charm.

Besides, a message shouldn’t lose its relevance just because it comes through a loudhailer.

Coming 2 America is available on Amazon Prime Video. Moxie is on Netflix.

The real-life thriller everyone should see

With more news stories emerging almost every day about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a new documentary about the whole disgraceful business, The Dissident (★★★★✩), is nothing if not timely.

Khashoggi was a courageous columnist and commentator who deplored the human rights abuses presided over by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (folksily known as ‘MBS’) and paid for his outspoken candour with his life. In October 2018 he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to get documents he needed for his impending marriage, but never came out alive.

Bryan Fogel’s film establishes that Khashoggi was almost certainly killed on the direct orders of MBS, and his corpse burnt. In one macabre detail, we learn that the consulate ordered a huge consignment of meat on the same day, which was probably cooked to mask the stench of burning human flesh.

Grisly fate: Jamal Khashoggi (right)

Grisly fate: Jamal Khashoggi (right)

Grisly fate: Jamal Khashoggi (right)

Fogel is a hugely accomplished documentary-maker whose 2017 film Icarus, about doping in the world of sport, won an Oscar. The Dissident is researched and made with the same rigour, and although a throbbing percussive score is overdone, it does add a kind of thriller vibe to a film that should be seen by as wide an audience as possible.

The same cannot be said of Wander Darkly (★★✩✩✩). I’m a fan of both Sienna Miller and Diego Luna, who play a couple in an edgy relationship whose lives are torn apart in a fatal road accident. They are both reliably excellent, but Tara Miele’s film is a confusing hybrid of psychological thriller, creepy ghost story and sentimental romance. Miller’s character lurches through much of it certain that she is dead, and is looking at earthly events from an unhappy afterlife. Long before the end, I’d begun to feel the same way myself.

Raya And The Last Dragon (★★✩✩✩) is a Disney animation that feels as if it might have been pieced together from the stuff they cut out of Mulan. I can’t claim to have seen too many films about a girl and her cute woodlouse companion trying to bring dragons back to life, but in all other respects it’s standard Disney fare.

The story is set in a mythical Far East country and a mostly Asian-American voice cast seems designed to fend off accusations of the dreaded ‘cultural appropriation’, but it doesn’t stop most characters (‘You did good, doo-drop,’ says Raya’s father) sounding like they’ve lived all their lives in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. 

The Dissident premieres tomorrow at the online Glasgow Film Festival, and is on general release next month. Wander Darkly is available on streaming platforms, and Raya And The Last Dragon is on Disney+

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