Trading Places

Trading PlacesSynopsis: They’re not just getting rich… they’re getting even.

What happens when a Wall Street tycoon meets a street smart hustler? Find out in the comedy classic that helped launch the careers of two Hollywood superstars – Eddie Murphy and Jamie Lee Curtis. From acclaimed director John Landis comes the story of a down and out con artist who trades lifestyles with a well to do investor (Dan Akroyd). Two wealthy power players (Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy) set the wheels turning with a crazy bet… and, from there, the comedy gets richer by the minute!

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Trading Places 7.0

eyelights: the concept. the lively cast.
eyesores: the tenuous script. the cheesy train sequence.

Many people probably don’t remember this, but there was a time when Eddie Murphy was a hot item.

Seriously.

In the span of a few short years, Murphy leapt off the TV screen from his massively successful stint on Saturday Night Live to the silver screen where he proceeded to hammer out one box office hit after another: ’48 Hrs’, ‘Beverley Hills Cop’, ‘Beverley Hills Cop 2’, ‘Coming to America’, ‘Delirious’, and ‘Trading Places’ – with only a few forgettable pictures in between.

‘Trading Places’ was his second feature, and it proved even more popular than ’48 Hrs’.

It’s not hard to see why: it had a funny script, a terrific premise, a range of various character types for its leads to have fun with, and it defied all with its charm and verve. It may not have been Masterpiece Theater, but it was put together with enough heart and skill to gloss over its blemishes.

Furthermore, it featured some of Hollywood’s hottest new talent: the afore-mentioned Murphy (who gave an excellent comedic performance), Dan Aykroyd (then in his prime), Jamie Lee Curtis (who was just getting noticed by Hollywood after years in popular low-budget films) and John Landis (hot off of his success with ‘Animal House’, ‘The Blues Brothers’ and ‘An American Werewolf in London’).

Amazingly enough, it actually holds up relatively well today.

For an ’80s comedy, that is. Because, let’s face it, the ’80s were hardly the era of sophisticated humour: after ‘Porky’s’ broke through, every wannabe comedy made its money by serving up as much frontal nudity as it could. Forget the writing! If you could put a few pairs of boobs in the picture, you had an instant audience both in cinemas and on home video!

In fact, it so happens that ‘Trading Places’, has its fair share of gratuitous nudity. I’m hardly a prude, and I most certainly don’t dislike seeing topless women dance, but there are times when it’s far too apparent that the nudity is there for nudity’s sake – that none of it serves the picture or the plot; it’s strictly eye candy. And that’s such an ’80s thing to do.

Beyond that, the film’s chief weakness is the script.

It’s not that it’s necessarily poorly-written – for this type of comedy, it’s decent enough. The problem is that it’s a more ambitious premise than the average Hollywood comedy: its central conceit is that of a social experiment, pitting genetics versus environment, the purpose of which is to explore human behaviour when people are thrown into unfamiliar situations.

It can work exceptionally well in a dramatic, if not suspenseful, context, when done right (ex: ‘Das Experiment’). But what about in a comedy?

I suppose that, if ‘Trading Places’ had attempted to provide a more realistic context, it might have been more successful. Unfortunately, it tried to crunch the whole experiment in the span of approximately a week – from right before Christmas to New Year’s Day. In real life, the process might have taken weeks, if not months, just to get the basics rights – let alone get through the whole thing.

Thus, as one can imagine, this creates plenty of utterly ludicrous situations, given that the characters are forced to change overnight.

I mean, just the notion that Murphy’s character could naturally learn the ins and outs of stock trading and become a genius at it is absurd to say the least – the film basically suggests that any schmuck can do it. It also asks us to believe that he would be casually accepted in high society without any questions or any criticism. Pretty unlikely, seems to me.

Similarly, ‘Trading Places’ wants us to believe that a snooty, uptight egotist such as Aykroyd’s character could turn to a life of crime very quickly if he were backed into a corner. While it may be true that being an upstanding citizen may have little to do with one’s ethics and more with opportunity, he turned to mush immediately – something a go-getter like him likely wouldn’t do.

Jamie Lee Curtis is also given a role that is as absurd as it is clichéd: the hooker with a heart of gold who is working the streets to build up her retirement fund. This woman has smarts and invests her money, lives a clean lifestyle, doesn’t even have a pimp and received johns at her home. So, basically, she’s “everygal” but she prostitutes herself for a living. Suuuuure. At least Curtis pulls it off relatively well.

The three of them are also supported by three solid supporting performances by Don Ameche, Ralph Bellamy, and Denholm Elliott. As the Dukes, the devious masterminds behind this experiment, Ameche and Bellamy are this side of sincerity in their portrayal – but they nonetheless bring a certain amount of warmth to their parts. As for Elliot, he initially plays Aykroyd and Murphy’s butler with the correct mix of correctness and contempt, but eventually pulls the mask off his sobriety in more ways than one.

What one has to remember is that ‘Trading Places’ is a feature-length comedy: its intention is to make people laugh, but it has very little time to do it in – so its focus is hardly on plot. Granted, it attempts to weave the humour around the plot, or even uses it as a launching pad, but its sights remain on the laughs, and the construction of the piece is consequently slightly loose; it stretches the boundaries of suspension of disbelief. But it’s all tolerable with the appropriate expectations.

If there’s any major flaw in the whole picture, it’s that final segment on the Amtrak train, where our trio (now joined by the butler) swap Beek’s suitcases to get at the crop reports. The whole thing was so over-the-top that it completely defied credibility – it could never happen in real life. This applies as much to their undercover operation as to the final encounter with Beek and a gorilla, which is patently absurd. Oh, those terrible gorilla suits! Ouch…

It lacked sophistication, but it was nonetheless possible to laugh at how ridiculous it was instead of groaning endlessly about it. Frankly, I was amused by how moronic Aykroyd looked in his guise as a Rastafarian. And not just the look: the idea that he would think he could get away with it! Similarly, I couldn’t help but laugh at Murphy using his fly-whisk in a closed-off train cabin and at Curtis’ exaggerated Swedish accent. It was silly, but slightly amusing.

Thankfully, nourished by a substantial premise, ‘Trading Place’ managed to overcome its many limitations. And with the star power and filmmaking talent involved, it turned what could very well have been mediocre fare into something rather enjoyable. It’s a flawed gem, I’ll grant anyone that, but it has its moments nonetheless.

Post scriptum: While I was left incredulous by the happy ending, thinking that this appeared far too simple to be believed, it turns out that it was realistic enough that a so-called “Eddie Murphy Rule” came into effect in the U.S., expanding insider trading laws in the securities world. Analysts say that what took place in the film is extremely unlikely in the real world, but it was enough to change the law in 2010, almost 30 years later. Wow.

Date of viewing: December 9, 2012

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