If you can't remember the last time Eddie Murphy was funny without the aid of a fat suit, Appellate Judge Brendan Babish recommends you check out Trading Places.
Our reviews of Happy Holidays Collection (published December 31st, 2011), Trading Places (published October 17th, 2002), and Trading Places: Special Collector's Edition (published May 28th, 2007) are also available.
They're not just getting rich…they're getting even.
Originally conceived as a project for Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, the 1983 film Trading Places was Eddie Murphy's follow up to 48 Hrs and cemented his status as a major movie star.
Facts of the Case
Mortimer (Don Ameche, Folks!) and Randolph Duke (Ralph Bellamy, Pretty Woman) are elderly patrician brothers who find themselves in a "nature vs. nurture" argument. Mortimer believes that a man who is successful must have been destined for success due to his nature. Randolph believes a man can only succeed if given the opportunity; under the right circumstances, any individual is capable for great success or failure.
To resolve the argument, the Duke brothers decide to fire one of their best employees, Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd, My Stepmother Is An Alien), a well-bred, well-educated commodities trader. They then frame him on drug possession charges and have him evicted from his home; it is only through the kindness of a prostitute named Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis, True Lies) that Louis manages to survive. Concurrently, the Duke brothers take a common street hustler, Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy), and give him a mansion to live in and a well-paying job at their brokerage firm.
However, after Billy Ray learns that the Duke brothers plan to toss him out on the street at the end of the experiment, he tracks down Louis and the two hatch a scheme to bankrupt the doddering old men.
I've always thought of Trading Places as a movie that's secured a nice spot for itself the comedy film canon. It's got performances from Eddie Murphy in his prime, a svelte Dan Aykroyd, and a topless Jamie Lee Curtis; it was directed by John Landis, before his contract with Satan, the one that bestowed temporary comedic genius upon him, expired; and it features what has got to be the funniest scene of a grown man being sodomized by a gorilla I've ever seen.
But then in 2006, Bravo released its list of the 100 funniest movies of all time. Trading Places came in at number 74, which initially seemed pretty good. But then I saw Shrek was listed at number three, Meet the Fockers at 25, and the Police Academy series at 59. If Trading Places fell only a couple more spots it would be behind Sister Act. Suddenly, its legacy seemed threatened. That being the case, I was happy to see it was picked relatively early for an HD DVD release. The early- to mid-80s were a great time for comedic cinema, and this belongs on the first tier of films from that era.
Trading Places is Landis' homage to 1930s social message comedies, popularized by directors like Frank Capra and Preston Sturges. In line with this style, the film is populated with broadly drawn caricatures: callous plutocrats, obnoxious bluebloods, and garrulous street hustlers. And for good measure, there's Ophelia, a hooker with a heart of gold. The film's moralizing on class discrimination is equally heavy-handed. Simplified characters and didactic plots work fine in screwball comedies, however, which often require stereotypes to hit their targets. And thankfully, Trading Places never takes itself too seriously to ever sacrifice a joke to further its social message. This is a film with a clear objective to be funny, and on this score it succeeds consistently.
However, one of the few missteps the film makes occurs in the third act. Once Louis and Billy Ray recognize the Duke brothers' nefarious plan, they embark on one of the most convoluted revenge plots in cinematic history. It involves the stock market and orange futures, but that's about all I really understand. In fact, the climatic scene is so complicated that the Wikipedia page for Trading Places currently devotes five paragraphs to explaining what actually happened. In many ways, this is a liability; in general, it's not good when your audience has no idea what's going on (notable exception: Mulholland Dr.).
That said, in the current cinematic environment, there is absolutely no way a plot device even half as intricate in a comedy would survive the test-screening process. As such, it is somewhat quaint and endearing to come across such an odd creative choice, as unwise as it might have been.
While just about everyone from my generation is familiar with Trading Places, I wonder how many people born in the 1980s and 90s have seen it. I don't think it carries the same cultural cache as Caddyshack or Animal House, and so might not be able to maintain a sizable audience in the future like those films surely will. But hopefully its re-release on HD DVD will help it maintain its prominence. And maybe the next time someone puts out a list of the 100 funniest films Trading Places can squeak past Police Academy.
The HD DVD version of Trading Places is being concurrently released with the special collector's edition DVD dubbed the "Looking Good, Feeling Good" edition. As the story is set in Philadelphia in the winter, the film will appear drab regardless of the picture quality. That said, I have seen the previous DVD transfer, and this is far superior. The new 1080p/VC-1 picture is spotless and shows great contrast between the dark shadows and mostly grey exteriors.
As a dialogue-heavy comedy, the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 plus soundtrack can't enhance much of the source material.
The Trading Places HD DVD contains all the supplements available on the DVD version. There are three featurettes: "The Making of Trading Places" is the most substantial, with interviews from all the surviving leads of the film, as well as John Landis (who seems to have some sort of aversion to commentary tracks); "Dressing the Part" is an eight-minute interview with the film's costume designer; and "The Trade in Trading Places" is a four-minute featurette that attempts to explain the film's climatic scene, with limited success. The deleted scene is only a few minutes long, and features one of the film's minor characters.
The trivia track is a really interesting idea. It's sort of like Pop-up Video, with tiny bits of trivia related to the scene popping up periodically. Unfortunately, the text of the trivia was so small I had to sit up close to the screen to read it.
Trading Places is simply one of the best comedies from a decade that produced an inordinate amount of humorous films. For all you youngsters who only know Dan Aykroyd from Tommy Boy and Eddie Murphy from those kiddie flicks like Daddy Day Care, this is especially recommended.
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Scales of Justice
• "Insider Trading: The Making of Trading Places"
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