Today’s Ultimate 80s review is brought to you by The Geek from Confessions From a Geek Mind. The Geek has so many awesome movie reviews worth checking out, as well as movie quotes, lists, and other great posts on her site. After finishing her blogathon entry here, go check out the rest of her stuff over there. Now on to what you came here for! The Geek’s review of Trading Places.
“That’s called the “quart of blood” technique. You do that, a quart of blood will drop out of a man’s body.” – Billy Ray Valentine
This review could have been an easy task. I could have easily picked fan favourites such as Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark or even Die Hard. Yet when I think of 80s films, there’s always one that I constantly return to. In fact, every year at Christmas I watch it without question and strongly believe it’s one of the best comedies ever made.
I’m talking about Trading Places.
For a film that was released in 1983, Trading Places has come a long way and aged well. It’s timeless and hilariously funny. Ingrained on my mind so much that I’ve found myself more times than often quoting lines from the film. I mean come on, how can I not say “Merry New Year” when the clock strikes twelve on New Years?
So what makes Trading Places so memorable? Well it boils down to the concept of the story. It’s essentially a rags to riches/prince and the pauper swap style story. A tale where two people are a pawn in a scientific and social experiment, for a bet no less.
But before I tackle that aspect, it’s important to put this film into context. Trading Places never shies away from the issue of race, prejudice and social class. It’s a topic that runs throughout and the themes are as relevant today as it was back then.
The opening is a clever introduction of the social realities. Set against the musical backdrop of Mozart’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro’, we see the viewpoint of the ordinary people, living, working and surviving. Whether it’s the daily commute to their jobs or the homeless people making do on the streets, the film is never afraid of showing the robustness of human nature. They are your everyday heroes and their efforts (no matter how big or small) is a contribution to society. The film could have easily opened up by showing 80s decadence and its over the top lifestyle. But the fact they showed working individuals means that we already have an immediate connection. The entire moment is not random because when we’re introduced to our first major character in Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd), we get the complete opposite.
I don’t blame you if from the moment you see Winthorpe you automatically dislike him. That’s the whole point. Dan Aykroyd plays a stuck up, repulsive and wealthy commodities broker. He doesn’t have to lift a finger because he clearly thinks highly of himself. He lives in his own world, trapped in a bubble of superficial friends and interests. He’s in a position of power and influence and highly respected by his employers, The Dukes. But despite all that, underneath the smugness and the yuppie, classism bravado, he is an honest, hardworking man. He’s clearly knowledgeable at what he does and as you’ll see later on in the film, his knowledge of the stock market becomes valuable.
Take that in comparison with Billy Ray Valentine (the brilliant Eddie Murphy) – poor, down on his luck black man looking for a big break. He’s a smart talking, wise cracking individual trying to survive the world and hilariously relies on his hustling capabilities (e.g. the blind con act – sitting on a cart and moving his head around like Stevie Wonder) to get sympathy or talk himself out of trouble. He’s definitely street smart, far more aware of what’s going despite not really having any real dependable friends.
It’s important you understand the difference in characteristics between the two leads because it plays a huge part of what goes on in the film, not only in terms of the plot but in highlighting that social context I mentioned.
The first encounter between Valentine and Winthorpe doesn’t start well. When they accidentally bump into each other, the prejudice starts to run its course, descending quickly into a perception vs. reality battle. Valentine tries to apologise for the misunderstanding. However Winthorpe, thinking Valentine is “a menace to decent society”, he escalates and exaggerates the situation by claiming he was robbed and attacked in broad daylight. For a nothing incident, Valentine ends up being the victim. I mean…look at how many cops were pointing their guns at him as he was being arrested!
It’s from that point on where the film gets interesting…. all thanks to Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer (Don Ameche) Duke.
“I had the most absurd nightmare. I was poor and no one liked me. I lost my job, I lost my house, Penelope hated me and it was all because of this terrible, awful Negro.” – Louis Winthorpe III
The Dukes are characters you can really despise for legitimate reasons. It’s not because they are insanely rich but it boils down to their values and morals. If Winthorpe showed arrogance and smugness then it’s an attribute allowed to fester by the Dukes.
The Dukes only care about their own interests, defined by their power and control. They’re clearly not afraid of using dirty tricks and exploiting the rules of insider trading, as demonstrated by their clandestine relationship with Clarence Beeks (Paul Gleason). They certainly don’t look after the people. In one scene they gave their servant $5 for his Christmas bonus in which the servant jokily replied “maybe I’ll go to the movies…by myself!” They’re the clearest indication you’ll get of that social context, using their ignorant views on race as their justification of being better than everyone else. Unfortunately for Winthorpe and Valentine, they become victims of their game.
The Dukes ask themselves a simple, explorative question – are human beings a product of nature or nurture? But instead of turning the theory into something tangible, they merely reduce the premise to something demeaning, manipulative, insidious and insultive. They purposely decide to use Valentine and Winthorpe by swapping their lifestyles around and placing a bet on it to see who was right.
How much was this bet worth? One measly US dollar.
They frame Winthorpe for being a drug dealer and for embezzlement so he can live life on the streets. They promote Valentine into a respectable job and house where just like Winthorpe, everything is provided for him.
But it’s not a smooth transition and we start to see obvious cracks in the swap.
Valentine naturally becomes distrusting of the experience because as he would put it, this sort of thing happens all the time. The Dukes act like Father Christmas and Valentine should be grateful for his gift. They even “dumb down” where bacon comes from as if it was too complicated for Valentine to understand, resulting in the best use of “breaking the fourth wall”. Yet when Valentine begins to excel (almost turning into Winthorpe no less), no matter how well he performed, the Dukes (in particular Mortimer) were still eager to see him make a mistake, such as leaving a money clip on the floor and wondering whether he would steal it. Valentine’s so-called friends end up as being freeloaders, living off his money. The only assuring guidance Valentine has is Coleman (Denholm Elliott), the underrated hero of the story. He advises Valentine to be himself, something the Dukes can’t take away from him.
Winthorpe on the other hand has the toughest change which rapidly descends into madness. He loses his friends (who didn’t even bother to stick by him), his fiancé, his job, his money, his reputation and is driven to the point of suicide.
It’s in those bleak and changing circumstances that you automatically feel sorry for them. Valentine despite making a huge impression with his quick learning of the business will never be accepted by the Dukes, purely because of the colour of his skin. Winthorpe is driven by desperation having every avenue blocked and nearly dies.
How cruel must you be to purposely destroy a man’s career or the promise of a better future, for a stupid bet no less? You give Valentine hope and you take it away. Winthorpe is left with nothing and directs his anger at Valentine, thinking he was behind his downfall. His life quickly falls apart and if it wasn’t for Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis) providing the tough love outside of his comfortable bubble, Winthorpe could have been too far gone to be rescued.
This is where Trading Places becomes one of the best comedies ever made. It heavily relies on the comeuppance with Valentine and Winthorpe realising they’ve been played. The only way to hurt rich people is by making them poor. They start off as enemies but bond over a common goal.
Trading Places champions the people in a decade where it was acceptable to say “greed is good”. Using their personal expertise and the new skills they obtained from their social changes, Valentine and Winthorpe challenge themselves to get even. They become better people from that experience. Maybe it’s a little presumptuous to assume they were doing this for the entire human race but who knows how many people were affected by the Duke’s misdemeanours. The Dukes openly admit they’ve done this before!
So do they get their revenge? Well what’s the point of spoiling it! I leave that in your capable hands but prepare yourself for a third act that is bonkers, full of SNL cameos, and James Belushi in a gorilla suit. Need I say more?
In my opinion, the reason why Trading Places succeeds is because it’s more than just a comedy. It subtlety breaks down those invisible barriers by challenging misconceptions and stereotypes, which seems like a rarity these days. At times the humour can be awkward but because it’s brave enough to tackle the situation head on, it makes the entire issue idiotically stupid and out of place. We’re all the same, red blooded human beings.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Trading Places is the best Eddie Murphy film. Yes better than Coming to America, 48 Hrs and Beverly Hills Cop. For a major role, his performance is raw and honest but his comedic timing is on point. If you don’t laugh, then there’s something wrong with you!
Aykroyd’s performance is also brilliant. His on screen chemistry with Murphy helps solidify the premise. Winthorpe’s downfall is not easy but Aykroyd’s skill and his own comedic timing delivers where it matters.
To put it simply, you couldn’t ask for a better film!