EMPIRE ESSAY: Trading Places Review

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A snobbish investor and a wily street con artist find their positions reversed as part of a bet by two callous millionaires.


Trading Places is, of course, The Prince And The Pauper meets A Christmas Carol, updated for the brash, morally-confused 1980s. At the same time, it attempts to say something about the society it depicts. But don't let that put you off. Trading Places is still a right good laugh. The social comment is laid on pretty thick right from the start, though. The movie opens with shots of vagrants huddled in doorways, juxtaposed with Coleman (Elliott) preparing his master's fresh orange juice and croissants (presumably this was considered the height of opulence in the early 80s). It may be a trifle heavy-handed in getting its message across, but Trading Places is still an innovative movie. Indeed, it pre-empts everything from Wall Street (1987) and Working Girl (1988) to Pretty Woman (1990), not to mention the "yuppie nightmare" sub-genre that proliferated in the mid-80s with the likes of After Hours (1985) and Something Wild (1986). Even Tom Wolfe's literary masterpiece The Bonfire Of The Vanities, disastrously filmed by Brian De Palma in 1990, has a little of Trading Places in it.

The film marked the end of John Landis' ascendancy as the golden boy of US cinema. The death of actor Vic Morrow on the set of The Twilight Zone the same year was a tragic portent of two decades unmarred by anything approaching a decent movie. It was good news for Eddie Murphy, however, whose rise to superstardom was set in motion by his never-bettered performance here as street hustler Billy Ray Valentine. Perfectly at home histrionically vamping his way through a series of pratfalls and black stereotypes, when he is transformed into a career-driven buppie something remarkable happens, and Eddie Murphy begins to act. It's a pity his material has so rarely matched his talent since.

The movie's plot hinges on a simple bet. Outside Philadelphia's exclusive Heritage Club a sign reads "With liberty and justice for all. Members only". Within, tycoon Randolph Duke (Bellamy) is convinced that a man is a product of his environment, while his brother Mortimer (Ameche) argues that success is down to breeding. When Billy Ray is wrongly accused of mugging their nephew, the priggish, aristocratic Louis Winthorpe (Aykroyd), the brothers decide to have a wager, agreeing to elevate Billy Ray and decimate Winthorpe in the interests of social science.

Billy Ray is given Louis' apartment, his manservant Coleman and an 8 OK salary. Initially bemused and wary, he soon takes to his new life as though born to it. Simultaneously, Louis is drummed out of the Heritage Club on a trumped-up charge of theft, and lands in jail on a fabricated drugs charge. Meanwhile, Billy Ray is changing fast. Having thrown a wild party at his new home, the ex-hustler starts chiding the guests for dropping cigarette butts on his Persian rug and failing to make appropriate use of the coasters. Clad in ludicrous rags, Winthorpe is disappearing through the cracks in society, with only Jamie Lee Curtis' kind-hearted, level-headed hooker Ophelia (improbably, at 24 she has 40 grand in the bank) to help him.

"Why is someone deliberately trying to ruin my life?" he wails. All is not lost, however, especially when Curtis affords a teasing glimpse of what was famously considered the best body in all of Hollywood.

Under Ophelia's influence, Louis eventually starts to resemble a human being, while Billy Ray is disturbed by what he glimpses lurking in the murk at the top. In the obligatory executive washroom scene the Dukes chuckle over their omnipotence, but reveal their chilling heart. "Do you really believe I would have a nigger run our family business?" Mortimer spits. "Of course not," the seemingly more liberal Randolph replies. "Neither would I". It's a moment that sends a clear signal that something is badly wrong with America — a pretty brave message for a comedy.

A despairing Louis overdoses, but Ophelia and Billy Ray save him, hooking up with the redoubtable Coleman to plan their next move. "Coleman, I had the most absurd nightmare," bleats Louis on waking. "I was poor and no one liked me — and it was all because of this terrible, awful negro." Cue a blood-freezing scream as his eyes fall on Billy Ray. The new allies resolve to foil the Dukes' plot to corner the orange juice market. Their plan involves a scene featuring James Belushi in a gorilla suit and Murphy decked out as an Exchange student from Cameroon. It's dumb, but it finally resolves itself with a killer punchline when the Dukes' villainous lackey Beeks ("I'll rip out your eyes and piss on your brain") gets royally rogered by a bona fide great ape.

The denouement takes place on Wall Street, with Louis back on fiery form. "Think big, think positive," he barks to Billy Ray. "Never show any sign of weakness. Always go for the throat... Let's kick some ass!" The Dukes are duly vanquished in the trading pit frenzy that ensues, and the hustler, the hooker, the butler and the toff repair to the Caribbean. As movie endings go, it's a decade-defining moment. Nice work if you can get it.

Brilliant ensemble comedy with Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd at the top of their games.