In 1988, with his stock trading at an all-time high, Eddie Murphy outdid even himself with Coming to America. In the wake of a triptych of movies (The Golden Child, Beverly Hills Cop II, and the standup flick Eddie Murphy: Raw) hated by critics but consumed voraciously by his expanding audience, Murphy ditched the vulgar street-smart routine for African royalty and New York romance. And Coming to America became Murphy's biggest hit at the time in spite of pure, unadulterated wholesomeness.
As Akeem, the crown prince of the prosperous African monarchy of Zamunda, Murphy grows up ensconced in a lifestyle of extreme pampering. He grows up literally walking on rose petals, with servants happily servicing his most private bodily functions. As he approaches adulthood however, Akeem grows restless with his luxurious isolation, especially after he meets the subservient sex-bot who will be his arranged bride.
Under the pretense of "sowing his royal oats" before marriage, Akeem gains permission from his father King Jaffe (James Earl Jones) to head to New York City, where Akeem's real M.O. is to snag a wife who can stimulate more than just his loins. With his servant Semmi (Arsenio Hall) by his side, Akeem moves to Queens (get it?) and goes native with a rat-hole apartment, a sports-themed wardrobe, and a custodial job at a rip-off burger joint called McDowell's. (Proprietor Cleo McDowell (John Amos) distinguishes it from the competition as such: "The Big Mac has two all-beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun. My buns have no seeds.")
Needless to say, fish-out-of-water hijinks ensue, like a black Crocodile Dundee.
Akeem ends up taking a shine to Cleo's good-girl daughter Lisa (Shari Headley), who is currently involved with Darryl, both heir to and aficionado of the Soul-Glo (think Jheri curl) business empire. Akeem's pursues Lisa with nice-guy generosity and philosophical spirit, compared with the snobbish callousness of Darryl.
Most of the movie is flat-out funny, and funniest of all are the multiple roles of Murphy, who honed his comedy-in-make-up craft playing the likes of Gumby on SNL. In addition to portraying the crotchety denizens of a local barber shop, Murphy puts on one of the most hysterical characters of his film career: Randy Watson, lead singer of the lounge band Sexual Chocolate. Watson's awkward butchering of Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All" at a neighborhood event is so brilliant, it almost makes up for The Golden Child.
Not everything works, of course. The movie's lengthy run time means occasional long periods without laughs, and the sweet perfection of Akeem and Lisa guarantee that the romantic scenes never exceed lukewarm. John Landis's lavish direction also makes some scenes and sections just too big for what amounts to a romantic comedy. But hey, it was the 1988. Big was big. (And for that matter, Big was big.)