July 04, 1988 12:00 PM

At 27, Eddie Murphy is the ultimate SNL success story. His seven films (48 Hrs., Trading Places, Best Defense, Beverly Hills Cop, The Golden Child, Beverly Hills Cop II, Raw) boast a total gross of more than a billion dollars. The mega-smash of Cop in 1984 swelled Murphy’s wallet and ego. That wasn’t acting we saw in his last three movies, it was grandstanding. But things may be changing. While Murphy’s new film—part farce, part old-fashioned romance—is hardly ground breaking, Murphy’s performance is. Playing an African prince who comes to America to find a bride who will love him for himself, he acts with a beguiling simplicity that lifts the movie into the top ranks of hot-weather entertainment. Swaggering, swearing and scene-hogging are out this time. Murphy shares the jokes with real-life pal Arsenio Hall, a stand-up comic and former host of Fox’s The Late Show. As the prince’s bodyguard-companion, the amiable Hall is appalled at leaving the palace’s luxuries to live like a peasant in America while the prince goes bride hunting. The early palace scenes, though brief, still rankle; director John (Twilight Zone—The Movie) Landis pumps up the sexist, scatological gags in the script by ex-SNL writers David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein—like having bare-breasted beauties wash the royal privates. The prince is introduced to his royal fiancée with a song by a servant: “She’s free from infection/ To be used at your discretion.” The prince craves a more independent woman. So the king, James Earl Jones, gives his son 40 days in America. Where better, the prince thinks, to find a queen than Queens? Murphy and Hall become custodians in a burger joint, where Murphy falls for boss John Amos’ daughter, a free-spirited bookkeeper, charmingly acted by model Shari Headley. Expect no surprises in the outcome. Delight instead in Murphy’s easy banter with Hall. And keep an eye out for the two in various cameo roles, cleverly disguised by makeup whiz Rick Baker, Oscared for Harry and the Hendersons. Baker surpasses himself transforming Murphy into a barber, an elderly Jewish kvetch and the bloated lead singer of a group called Sexual Chocolate. These are vivid comic creations. But Murphy really shines in his quieter moments. His walk home after his first date, singing Jackie Wilson’s To Be Loved in an African accent, is joyously romantic. This is Murphy’s most heartfelt and hilarious performance. And his riskiest. Audiences may miss the foulmouthed wiseguy they took to their hearts. Will they accept the mature Murphy, who plans to take on his first dramatic role in the film of the Pulitzer prizewinning play, Fences? Let’s hope so. Coming to America shows Eddie Murphy’s talent has only begun to be tapped. (R)

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