Just a couple of days ago I mentioned in my Beverly Hills Cop review that I hadn’t seen any of Eddie Murphy’s early films. I realised afterwards that this was incorrect as years ago I’d seen an even earlier movie, Trading Places. It just so happened that I’d recorded that very same movie a few weeks ago and watched it again yesterday. Trading Places is a satirical comedy in which two very wealthy commodities brokers mess with the lives of an employee and a homeless man for their own amusement. Their nature vs. nurture argument leads to a bet that they can turn a poor, uneducated black man (Eddie Murphy) into a wealthy broker while simultaneously turning their suave and successful employee (Dan Aykroyd) into a bum who turns to crime.
Despite its liberal message Trading Places is all over the place morally and much of the humour is derived from racist or offensive material. It’s not a particularly funny film in general but is well made and despite the inherent moral problems with the story, the plot is engaging and thought provoking. The film opens with a montage which sites the differences between Philadelphia’s rich and poor. In the inner city kids are seen playing in littered streets and men huddled round burning drums while in more upmarket areas, people are waited on by butlers and enjoy fine cuisine. This difference is then extended to the introduction of the central characters.
Louis Winthorpe III (Aykroyd) is introduced though his butler (Denholm Elliot) who we see preparing his master’s breakfast. During his morning Winthorpe has everything done for him and doesn’t even have to open his own car door. At the same time Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy) is outside a gentlemen’s club hustling the rich patrons by pretending to be a blind and legless war veteran. A chance meeting between the two men gives the wealthy Duke Brothers (Don Ameche & Ralph Bellamy) the opportunity to test the nature vs. nurture theory. The whole idea is mean spirited and nasty and it’s not very nice to see Winthorpe turn into a heavily drinking, crime committing bum. Unfortunately where the film is concerned, while it isn’t nice, I had no sympathy for the character because he was such a dick. His pomposity and mid Atlantic accent didn’t endear me to the character, even at the very end. I enjoyed seeing Murphy’s Valentine character make the most of his opportunities and both men’s actions seem to indicate that the film comes down on the side of nurture which is probably the more academically liberal assessment of the experiment.
The problem with the liberal standpoint of the film is that even though the greedy capitalists get their comeuppance and the butler, prostitute and homeless man get rich; there is far too much offensive humour on the way to the conclusion. The film hasn’t aged at all well and there are several un-ironic uses of racial slurs as well as a character blacking up. You could say that it is generally ‘the bad guys’ who use the offensive language but even ‘the good guys’ resort to extreme xenophobic caricatures in the closing stages which is done purely for laughs. The film throws a light on the greed and conservatism of 80s America and seems to have its heart in the right place but occasionally its heart is pushed to the right while goose-stepping and it makes for uncomfortable viewing. Another problem plot wise is that there is so much exposition throughout the film that it feels like the film makers are treating the audience like idiots. Everything is spelled out slowly and made overly obvious.
The lack of comedy also hurts the movie. Eddie Murphy is given little to do comedy wise but is watchable and entertaining. Dan Aykroyd also struggles to produce laughs and I think in total I laughed twice throughout the entire film. Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche equip themselves well to their villainous roles and Denholm Elliot is also very good as the Butler but like the rest of the cast, produces few laughs. Jamie Lee Curtis, despite my girlfriend’s protestations looks very appealing and is great as the prostitute with a heart of gold. Acting wise I can’t fault the movie but with a cast this talented, I expected a funnier script for them to work with. The character development is good and in the latter stages the two stars have great chemistry but overall I was left disappointed by Trading Places. It’s a movie with a lot to say about greed and says some it if convincingly but it isn’t funny enough and gets bogged down in politically incorrect language and actions which don’t match its message.
- Denholm Elliot and Jamie Lee Curtis both won BAFTAs for their performances.
- The film's original title was Black and White.
- Don Ameche would only shoot one take of any scene in which he had to swear because of his strong religious beliefs.