OK, I’ve already reviewed “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (click here to read it) and plan to review “A Christmas Story” (click here to read it – this link put in as an update) as we approach its annual marathon. So, today I’m looking at “Trading Places,” which was released the same year as “A Christmas Story” but was much more popular. While some consider this a Christmas movie, I don’t. It’s a bit mature (tell me you didn’t watch it because of Jamie Lee Curtis) and actually peaks at the New Year. It bridges the time between “Christmas Vacation” and “A Christmas Story” as a much far superior motion picture that happens to be set at the holidays. Yes, “Trading Places” is killer funny, has an outstanding cast is just about perfect. You can watch it at Thanksgiving, Christmas and at the New Year, but also in spring, summer and fall, too, and it will be just as good.
(1983; 116 minutes; rated R; directed by John Landis and starring Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd and Ralph Bellamy)
IT’S NOT GENES OR UPBRINGING, IT’S JAMIE LEE
(NOTE: I expanded this review with some updated word tenses, fixing a few typos and updating links on Dec. 19, 2016.)
The world of entertainment was rollicking along in the early 1980s, hard on the heels of the seminal comedy “National Lampoon’s Animal House” in 1978. It was a new day in comedy and film and it certainly wasn’t your old man’s comedy and movies. “Trading Places” in 1983 propelled Jamie Lee Curtis into the mainstream as a coming superstar and showcased the talents of two of the top comedians of the day: Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd.
Anything could happen in comedy at the time, just look at “Caddyshack” from 1980, and just about did. With “Trading Places” you get it all: the new blood, some of the old and inventive filmmaking that didn’t allow itself to be bogged down by what it was supposed to do. It did what it wanted – and that was to entertain to the fullest. So, in steps edgy comedian Murphy, who was fresh off his first film the year before with “48 Hrs.,” and as the counterpoint to Eddie’s keg of dynamite is Aykroyd, who plays a stuck-up but endearing yuppie.
As everyone probably knows, “Trading Places” is the story of two men: one rich; one poor. They become the focus of a bet between two rich men arguing over whether it is genetics or environment that makes a difference in human beings. The rich guy is Aykroyd, who plays “Louis Winthorpe III,” and he’s the office manager for the rich guys’ brokerage house. Enter Murphy as “Billy Ray Valentine” and he’s a street guy with lots of guts and a knack for knowing what’s what. The rich guys, “Randolph and Mortimer Duke” played respectively by Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche, have divided opinions on whether Murphy off the street could run their firm and what would happen to Aykroyd if he were put on the street in shame.
Of course nothing turns out as anyone plans. Murphy is elevated and soon is wearing Aykroyd’s expensive wardrobe and riding in his car, while a disgraced Aydroyd is left in jail and having to be rescued by a heart-of-gold hooker, “Ophelia” played by Curtis. After a very bumpy road for Aydroyd and a prosperous one for Murphy, the two come together and understand what’s going on. They then pool their considerable personal abilities to get back at the rich guys, who are planning to corner the frozen orange juice market just after New Year’s Day.
Along the way there are parties; a topless Jamie Lee; embarrassing encounters with Aykroyd’s soon-to-be-former friends; a topless … oh, you get the idea. It all comes to a head on the floor of the stock exchange with Aykroyd (finally on his turf and swinging for the fences) and Murphy putting a sweet beat-down on Bellamy and Ameche.
The good guys win, Aykroyd gets the girl and the trio, along with the longsuffering butler who sides with the guys over his once-rich employers, wind up all smiles on a tropical beach as they enjoy the spoils of their victory.
Aykroyd is simply perfect as the prissy yuppie who is framed for stealing and forced onto the street. His scene at the police station where he’s stripped searched (OK, down to his skivvies) is outstanding and he does a great job navigating through all his challenges. Aykroyd has also been in the film version of “Dragnet” as well as “Sneakers” with Robert Redford (click here for my review) and wonderfully off-kilter as a hitman in “Grosse Pointe Blank” (click here for my review). Aykroyd was nominated for an Oscar for his work in “Driving Miss Daisy.”
Murphy is at his energetic, outlandish best here as the brash but street-wise “Valentine.” He does a good job at quickly figuring out the world of finance (it’s really not too different than some things on the street) and is simply watchable every second he’s on the screen. The train scene where he pretends to be an African exchange student is marvelous. Murphy has been in “Doctor Doolittle” and its sequel as well as getting an Oscar nomination for “Dreamgirls” and was also excellent in his own “Harlem Nights” with Richard Pryor (click here for my review). He is most fondly remembered for is “Axel Foley” character in the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies.
Another Oscar nominee here is Denholm Elliott, who plays the butler “Coleman.” He works with the rich guys in the ruining of Aykroyd’s life and the elevation of Murphy. He takes a familiar but a little different road with his character than John Gielgud did as the butler two years before in “Arthur.” Elliott, who was nominated for “A Room with a View,” is most recognized from his work in the “Indiana Jones” franchise. He died of AIDS at the age of 70 in 1992, according to IMDb.com.
Curtis’ effort here is overshadowed by her very famous topless scenes with Aykroyd. Still, she does a really terrific job as the hooker looking to work her way off the street. She’s worldly wise but not jaded (only in the movies) and conveys her part with conviction and verve. Curtis has also been in “Freaky Friday,” “True Lies” with Arnold Schwarzenegger (click here for my review) and the marvelous “A Fish Called Wanda.” Of course she was most famously in John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (click here for my review) and has won two Golden Globes (OK, no jokes).
Bellamy, too, is an Oscar nominee (“The Awful Truth”) while Ameche is an Oscar winner for his turn two years after “Trading Places” for his work in “Cocoon.” Both men play their rich, snobby and elitist rich guy character to perfection. They do such a good job you’d believe they were actually brothers.
However, the best job by a supporting actor is by Paul Gleason, who plays tough-guy “Clarence Beeks,” who is helping the Bellamy and Amache to cheat their way on the orange juice takeover. He just flies through the film having fun being an obnoxious jerk. Gleason, who was the principal in “The Breakfast Club,” revels in this kind of role and he’s really good at it. He was also in the totally awful “Johnny Be Good” (click here for my review) as well as the idiot cop in “Die Hard.”
Two other hot comedy stars at the time, Al Franken and Tom Davis, have a small part here as two slacker baggage handlers on a train. Franken, who would go on to become one of the most brainless U.S. Senators of all time (thanks to an equally brainless electorate in Minnesota), made his mark on “Saturday Night Live,” as did Davis. The pair is wonderful here.
“Trading Places” was the No. 4 film of the year in 1983 with $90.4 million in domestic ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. It was not just a hit with audiences, but investors, too, because it was made on a budget of $15 million, according to Wiki. The No. 1 film of the year was “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi” with $252.5 million. Here are the other films from that year that I’ve reviewed:
- “Christine” (neat Stephen King sci-fi) – click here for my review
- “A Christmas Story” (Christmas classic) – click here for my review
- “Easy Money” (hilarious Dangerfield) – click here for my review
- “Local Hero” (wonderful) – click here for my review)
- “Max Dugan Returns” (great Neil Simon) — click here for my review
- “Octopussy” (so-so 007) – click here for my review
- “WarGames” (really solid) – click here for my review
Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):
- The wonderful veteran supporting actor Bill Cobbs has a small part here as an unnamed bartender. Cobbs did a really sharp turn in “New Jack City” (click here for my review) and was also good in Tom Hanks’ “That Thing You Do!” (click here for my review).
- Directly from IMDb.com: “Several funny moments in the film came about by accident. The scene where Mortimer is trying to catch the money clip and having trouble wasn’t supposed to happen that way, but both kept going with it and not breaking character, so it was kept in. Ophelia’s “Swedish” disguise came about because Jamie Lee Curtis couldn’t do the correct Austrian accent. “
- Also directly from IMDb.com: “When shown on television in April, 1987 it was the highest-rated theatrical film broadcast by any network.”
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