Favorite Fictional Characters, #223: Prince Akeem Joffer
Eddie Murphy was such a huge star in the 1980s. It's hard to remember sometimes these days, when he can't find his rhythm (other than his hilarious Donkey in the Shrek franchise), but he was one of the funniest men alive back then. His short and meteoric SNL stint produced some gut-busting classics, and though I've never seen them, I understand that Beverly Hills Cop and Trading Places are worthwhile. I liked The Distinguished Gentleman quite a bit, and The Golden Child has some very funny moments. But my favorite of his catalog is easily Coming to America. You've got James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair as the rulers of Zamunda (interestingly, they would reprise their roles as African monarchs in The Lion King six years later). You've got a young, pre-ER Eriq La Salle with his soul glowing. You've got Arsenio Hall providing solid backup yuks (probably his best use outside of handing Bill Clinton a saxophone), and John Amos, Admiral Fitzwallace himself, as Cleo McDowell, fending off the trademark-infringement claims of the golden arches guys. It's a great cast, headlined by Murphy at the waning zenith of his powers as Crown Prince Akeem Joffer.
In many ways, it's a standard romantic comedy, with a predictable plot. It's the individual performances that make this movie work, and Murphy shows his range. His Akeem can be broadly silly, channeling Murphy's go-to goofy grin, but he can also be charming, understated, and even tender. Akeem is a pampered and sheltered royal scion, who seeks to understand the modern world before eventually succeeding his father as sovereign of fictional Zamunda. Of course his travels take him to New York City, where he falls in love with the underwhelming Lisa, and has a variety of culture-shock, fish-out-of-water adventures with his faithful servant Semi (Hall). He proves to be a good man, with a strong sense of justice, though it all avails him naught in the withering glare of his father's adherence to tradition. (Spoiler alert, if you haven't caught this one in the near-thirty years since its release - he gets the girl anyway).
This is the pivotal film in Murphy's career. He'd have some hits (Boomerang, The Distinguished Gentleman), but never ascend the the heights of his 1980s summit again. Indeed, the seeds of his decline can be found in this movie, as he indulges himself by playing multiple supporting roles, a gimmick that would later consume entire films. Eddie Murphy, the guy they wanted for Ghostbusters in 1985, had reached his high-water mark and begun to recede.