FILM REVIEW: Trading Places (1983)

Trading Places (USA, 1983)
Directed by John Landis

Starring Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Lee Curtis, Denholm Elliott, Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche

If someone came up to you and pitched a film starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, and directed by John Landis, they wouldn’t get many takers. Both actors’ careers seem in a constant state of freefall: for every Dreamgirls there’s a dozen Norbits, and for every Chaplin there’s a dozen Coneheads. As for Landis, he’s been creatively at sea since the 1980s ended, and many people still haven’t forgiven him for Beverly Hills Cop III.It is therefore both gratifying and refreshing to learn that putting this trio together was once a winning combination. Trading Places is a really funny, really smart social satire which finds both its stars and director at the top of their games. It marries Landis’ trademark blend of comedy and wry intelligence with a series of likeable performances and a sharp script, producing an undisputed comedy classic.

Trading Places
shares many elements with Pygmalion, Anthony Asquith’s adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play. The play may have no mention of stockbrokers, or beggars, or Harvard for that matter, but the central argument of nature vs. nurture is a twisted extension of the relationship between Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering. In Pygmalion, Higgins sees Eliza Doolittle as a plaything, a whimsical distraction for him to work on, while Pickering is quick to see her as a human being and is constantly sympathetic. Mortimer and Randolph Duke see their ‘scientific experiment’ as a plaything too – the only difference is that both are ultimately playing Higgins, with neither displaying any kind of sympathy for Winthorpe or Valentine.

It would be easy to set up this premise of nature vs. nurture and then forget about it in the pursuit of a quick gag. Instead, Landis lets it play out to various extremes, with the laughs coming from a brilliant balance of whimsy and black comedy. Part of the Dukes’ bet involves Winthorpe and Valentine switching behaviour – one becomes desperate, the other civilised. And it is scary just how quickly Murphy starts acting like Aykroyd. He invites all his friends from the bar back to his house, but then gets offended by them not using coasters and ends up ordering them to leave.

Aykroyd’s transformation is similarly striking, with his fall from grace being matched by his declining patience and manners (though his snobbery remains intact). He begins the film with perfect hair and a spotless suit, and ends up stuffing a salmon down his front while dressed as Santa. Landis shoots these scenes with the same blend of comedy and pain that he perfected on An American Werewolf in London. Take the brilliant scene with Aykroyd standing in the street having been thrown off the bus. A dog urinates on him, the rain starts falling, he puts a gun to his head and finds that it’s empty; he then throws the gun away, only for it to go off in the distance. That is Landis at his best, piling on the pathos so we believe in the character before giving us relief with a really good joke at the end.If you go into Trading Places expecting the hard-hearted satire of Wall Street or American Psycho, you may be surprised or disappointed. Although it is in places as biting as those films, Trading Places is essentially light on its feet. It feels breezy, sassy and snappy; the lines trip naturally off the actors’ tongues and it never feels like the director is making the action come to a standstill just so he can lecture the audience. Trading Places is ultimately a fairy tale, and in order to maintain the suspension of disbelief, it has to remain quick and funny. As he would later demonstrate on Into the Night, Landis is a master of sustaining and escalating comedy, so that even if something comes along which we don’t understand, we keep laughing, and as long as we laugh the characters stay believable.

The humour in Trading Places is wide-ranging, but it never feels like Landis is clutching at straws to keep the concept going. There are a large number of running gags, such as the black guy whose sole response is “Yeah”, or Aykroyd’s insistence that he wasn’t dealing heroin, but angel dust. Eddie Murphy is at his fast-talking best, displaying none of the creepiness he has in The Nutty Professor but instead being utterly charming from beginning to end. His quick-fire style is well-suited to the rapid-moving world of the stock market, and his scenes with the Dukes are well-written to capitalise upon this.

There is also an interesting undercurrent in Trading Places about how the ideals of capitalism and economic freedom have bred a culture based upon breeding and privilege. The lives of Winthorpe and the Dukes are presented as caricatures of the English aristocracy: Winthorpe begins his day with breakfast in bed and has a long-suffering butler waiting on him hand and foot. The social position of the stockbroker is like that of an imperial administrator, pacifying the serfs with talk of individual initiative but holding onto his own wealth through ruthless segregation between ‘us’ and them’. Such traits are found in visual gags all over the film, the best being the sign on the club, which reads ‘Liberty and Justice for All’, followed swiftly by ‘(Members Only)’.

This paradoxical combination of enterprise and prejudice is also present on a racial level. The gentleman’s club is largely white in membership, and when the Dukes offer their black waiter his Christmas bonus, it is a pitiful amount. The fact that the Dukes pick a ‘negro’ for their ‘experiment’ shows how deeply their prejudices are ingrained. They are happy to use Valentine to get what they want, but even if he were ten times as talented as Winthorpe they would never allow him to run the company; they only agree to keep him on board to prevent market instability before the crop report. This encounter shows how friendship, loyalty and talent mean nothing in this world; no matter how many times Mortimer says “money isn’t everything”, we all know that matters to them is the wealth a man carries and how well he can use it.

The central performances in Trading Places are superb. Dan Aykroyd excels himself, topping his work in both The Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters in what his possibly his finest work. Murphy displays the same fiery attitude and quick wit which would serve him well in Beverly Hills Cop, and Denholm Elliott is perfectly cast as Coleman. Most impressive of all is Jamie Lee Curtis in the role which made her famous. Her character is resourceful, intelligent and self-sufficient, and comes with the same great comic timing that she would perfect in A Fish Called Wanda.Certain aspects of Trading Places haven’t dated very well. Dan Aykroyd doing blackface is hard to stomach, especially in front of Eddie Murphy. In fact, the whole train sequence feels like a second-rate version of the toga party from Animal House. But taken as a whole, Trading Places is a first-rate comedy which has by and large survived the test of time. The jokes are funny and sustained for well over 90 minutes, the performances are believable, and the direction is very strong, built around a fitting cinematography of dollar greens and wooden browns. It is one of the funniest films of the 1980s and furthers Landis’ status as a great director. American Werewolf remains his best film, but this is by far his best comedy.

Rating: 4.5/5
Verdict: A light-hearted comic gem


Post a Comment