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Trading Places

December 21, 2015

Trading Places (1983)
Director: John Landis
Actors: Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis

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Synopsis: Senior business partners and brothers, Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche), play a callous game when they test their respective nature vs. nurture ideologies by swapping the lives of their blue blood employee, Winthorpe (Dan Aykroyd), and street conman, Billy Ray (Eddie Murphy).

Review: Is Trading Places the definitive cinematic document of Reagan-era Capitalism? It may just be with its classical conceit of two callous, establishment old boys coming unstuck when they think they can ‘play God’ and fecklessly switch the lives and fortunes of Ivy League white boy, Winthorpe, and ghetto shyster, Valentine.

Director John Landis delivers his story as exercise in ironic contrasts: signposted in the arch opening of classical music juxtaposing the hoi polloi of Philadelphia society with the deprived, destitute landscape of its inner-city. The whole film just reeks of the Eighties, which Landis has cleverly reimagined as a very sly ‘hundred years later’ Christmas Carol with its fablistic dissection of the age’s moral canvas. Also, much like A Christmas Carol, it has the ethos of a pantomime, helped in no small part by a very rich set of characterisations, and with the inclusion of some wonderful comic set-pieces: Eddie Murphy’s Valentine enjoying his new-found wealth by flicking hundred dollar bills in the face of a barman in his old neighbourhood, and the girls dancing lasciviously around Denholm Elliott’s bemused butler in the wake of Valentine taking over Winthorpe’s house.

What really resonates and endures about this comedy, some thirty years after its release, is how it was able to intuitively crystallise the whole socio-political landscape of the era (the scene of the Duke brothers capitulating in Manhattan’s Twin Towers is particularly evocative), and the film’s sophistication of comedy is a world away from the brashness of today’s Fratpack/Sandler-inspired Hollywood output. There are also some quite serious subpoints to Trading Places – Winthorpe does actually try to kill himself at one point, and it’s questionable whether even Winthorpe fully disabuses himself of the insidious snobbery and racism that blights all the film’s wealthy personnel. Although there is one slightly unconvicing scene where Winthorpe, Valentine, Ophelia et al apprehend the orange crop forecasts on a Philadelphia train (more a showcase for the comic talents of Aykroyd, Murphy, Curtis and Elliott), everything else is a near pitch-perfect exposition of Eighties’ comedy at its best. (December 2015)

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