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REVIEW – Trading Places

Trading PlacesDirected by: John Landis
Produced by: Aaron Russo
Written by: Timothy Harris, Herschel Weingrod
Edited by: Malcolm Campbell
Cinematography by: Robert Paynter
Music by: Elmer Bernstein
Starring: Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche, Denholm Elliott, Paul Gleason, Kristin Holby, James Belushi, Tom Davis, Al Franken
Year: 1983


I’d always managed to forget this movie for the Christmas/New Year’s season in years past – it takes place predominately over the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Not this year, though, thanks to a friendly reminder to not do that. My family was pretty big on this movie when I was growing up. Sure, I had to cover my eyes quite a few times (it’s an R-rated ‘80s comedy, after all), but apart from that, even I found it pretty enjoyable as a kid. But I haven’t seen it in a few years, as evidenced by my constant forgetfulness of its existence, and as the years went on, and the cycle of trying to remember this film at an appropriate time, forgetting, and then holding off until an appropriate time continued, I began to wonder to myself – was it actually Coming to America that I liked better than the other? Well, I don’t really know the answer to that one, as I also have to watch Coming to America again for the first time in years. However, the time has at least finally come for me to get around to reviewing Trading Places at what is ostensibly an “appropriate time” of year. So…

Trading Places - Eddie Murphy, Jamie Lee Curtis, Dan Aykroyd

If you are somehow unfamiliar with the film – perhaps you never caught it on its numerous showings on TBS or TNT (or maybe they don’t show it anymore? – I don’t have cable…), or maybe you simply were not allowed to watch it at all rather than have it censored by your parents on the fly and thus never got around to familiarizing yourself with it – the plot can easily be seen as a take on The Prince and the Pauper, only neither the prince nor the pauper actually had a hand in the plot to switch places. Here, two extremely wealthy brothers make a bet: is a privileged upbringing more influential in a man becoming successful, or are some men just predisposed to a life of crime and poverty? Their unwitting subjects: pampered and loyal (and white) employee Louis Winthorpe III, who they frame for theft, and professional panhandler (and black man) Billy Ray Valentine, who they give basically everything Louis ever owned, including his job. Needless to say, neither Winthorpe nor Billy Ray are entirely certain how to deal with their newfound places in society, and neither finds themselves especially pleased with what transpires.

Trading Places - Ralph Bellamy, Eddie Murphy, Don Ameche

Trading Places is actually not nearly the laugh riot you’d expect from a widely loved film hailing from the peak of both Eddie Murphy’s and Dan Aykroyd’s careers. That’s not to say that it’s not a funny film – it definitely is – but there’s a surprising amount of time spent just watching these characters dealing with their plights without the film throwing out joke after joke. The story itself is interesting, and its performances engaging, so it’s entertaining, regardless of whether the film is setting up a gag.

Trading Places - Denholm Elliott, Jamie Lee Curtis, Eddie Murphy

Apart from Aykroyd and Murphy, who are pretty much perfect as their respective characters (Aykroyd’s scene with a salmon gets my biggest laugh), the film also features Jamie Lee Curtis, Denholm Elliott, Ralph Bellamy, and Don Ameche in prominent and amusing supporting roles. Bellamy and Ameche play the minds behind the wager, the Duke brothers, and somehow make their casual racism endearing – in an antagonistic love-to-hate-them kind of way, of course. Curtis plays Ophelia, a hooker with not just a heart of gold but also quite a bit of intelligence (though her geographical knowledge leaves something to be desired). Elliott, excelling in understated humor and facial expressions, is the obedient but put-upon butler caught in the middle of it all. That the characters are actually well-acted, well-rounded, and endearing, that the movie isn’t tirelessly trying to constantly be “on” like a lot of line-o-rama comedies these days, isn’t such a big deal and is, perhaps, its biggest asset.

Trading Places - Eddie Murphy, Jamie Lee Curtis, Dan Aykroyd

Trading Places deserves its place as a revered classic, even if it’s not the funniest film either leads have made, and even if the film has a few of-its-era bits of problematic parts. (Blackface, anyone? No? How about implied rape by an animal, then?) Even so, it’s a solid premise, has great performances, and a steady stream of hilarity for good measure, so you’re likely to overlook the film’s comparatively minor parts that, let’s face it, I’m sure the producers did not intend to actually condone in the name of edgy humor, particularly given the film’s condemnation of the racial and social divide at the center of the Duke brothers’ bet. I suppose I’ll have to re-watch Coming to America now that I’ve re-watched John Landis’ previous film, but I’m fairly confident in saying that, regardless of the ranking, Trading Places is worth watching, regardless of the time of year.

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5

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  1. December 1, 2017 at 12:13 am


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