253. Trading Places (US 1983)

Director: John Landis

Starring: Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, Denholm Elliot, Don Ameche, Ralph Bellamy, Paul Gleason

Music: Elmer Bernstein

Cinematography: Robert Paynter

Screenplay: Timothy Harris; Herschel Weingrod

Bit Part: Frank Oz

 In one line: Scheming capitalist brothers reverse the fortunes of a Wall Street broker and homeless beggar.


Louis Winthorpe III (Ayckroyd) is a wealthy, ex Ivy League Wall Street commodities broker with a beautiful fiancée, an elegant town house and his own butler. Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy) is a hustling vagrant, trying to make a living on the freezing winter streets of Philadelphia .

Winthorpe works for the Duke brothers (Bellamy and Ameche), two heartless, asset-stripping venture capitalists. The Duke brothers argue about a nature versus nurture story in a newspaper and make a wager: Bellamy bets Ameche that if Winthorpe and Valentine’s fortunes are reversed, Winthorpe will degenerate into a life of crime while Valentine will thrive in a position of great responsibility.

Winthorpe is framed for theft and drug possession and is financially and socially ruined. Valentine is given Winthorpe’s job and house and does indeed succeed in the world of capitalist speculation.  

Winthorpe is taken in by a kindly (but frankly very unlikely) prostitute Ophelia (Curtis) and plots his revenge.

When Valentine finds out about the nature and sum of the bet ($1), and the fact that the Dukes are racists who plan to throw him back on the scrapheap once the bet is over, he seeks out Winthorpe to help him exact his revenge.

I can understand people’s reservations about this film: Dan Ayckroyd, John Landis and Eddie Murphy all in one nasty little bundle.

With this film, Murphy breathed out his last breath of talent and has continued to exhume his rotten career with often spectacular financial returns but with nothing of any real merit (save perhaps his ‘Donkey’ in the Shrek franchise). This is Murphy’s best film by a mile, although 48 Hours is occasionally fondly remembered (but mainly for the great James Remar, as far as I’m concerned).

Murphy has a number of good scenes – his reaction to his miraculous cure from leglessness (after being armpit-lifted by two cops) and his quickly improvised Vietnam war record (''I was in Sang Bang, Dang Gong — I was all over that place....”) show what he could have been capable of if reined in by the right director.

My favourite comic moment of the film is where the Dukes patronise Valentine by telling him about the various commodities that they have thoughtfully put on to little plates in front him. Bellamy tells Murphy about pork bellies and how they are the source of bacon, "...like you might find on a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich". Murphy breaks the ‘fourth wall’ and stares deadpan into the camera. It’s a perfect moment and the comedy highlight of his career.  

Aykroyd’s career is littered with dreadful films and his performance here is the weakest (by far) of the main leads. His Winthorpe is just too over- -the-top, stereotyped and plain silly to garner much sympathy or the all-important believability required to make a farce watchable for any normal person. He is out-acted by Fozzie Bear/Miss Piggy actor/voice Frank Oz in a brief scene where he is interviewed by Oz’s angry, world-weary station cop. Aykroyd has one great moment, however. After gate-crashing the Duke's Christmas party (dressed as a very grubby Santa), Winthorpe leaves the Dukes' building, pissed and suicidal. He gets on a bus and tries to eat a big piece of meat he has stolen from the party. Ayckroyd's slow-motion chewing, nodding semi-comatose head and meat/beard entanglement acting is worth an eight on ten for an almost nailed-on depiction of a drunk. He'll never be in the same league as 'the drunk' in Laurel and Hardy or the dad in Rita, Sue and Bob Too, but it's Aykroyd's finest film moment.

The film dips dreadfully during Valentine's and Winthorpe's 'sting'. Four of the main protagonists disguise themselves to steal the insider crop report from the Dukes' hired thug, Clarence Beeks (Gleason). Aykroyd's 'Jamaican', Murphy's 'African Student' and particularly Elliot's Irish priest and Curtis's Swedish backpacker are toe-curlingly bad and there is a truly rubbish plot device involving a poor quality 'gorilla' that is worse than embarrassing.

The final pay-off as Winthorpe and Valentine bankrupt the Duke's in the bear pit of the Wall Street stock exchange saves the film from being a game of two halves.

There is excellent support from the almost brilliant Elliot (Irish priest excepted) and the ever-dependable Gleason. Beeks's character is quickly sketched during a phone call from a public phone booth. A woman is growing impatient to use the phone, much to Beeks's annoyance. After a polite but efficient 'excuse me' to Bellamy, Beeks holds the phone to his chest, turns to the woman and brusquely, but efficiently says: "Fuck off." (He does it much better than I can possibly describe.)

The real revelations, however, are Bellamy and Ameche as the amoral Dukes. The usually avuncular Bellamy colludes with his even more evil brother Ameche in their horrible, heartless scheme. Ameche's racist explanation about why the dukes could not possibly have a black man running their company is truly shocking. Ameche, the once debonair 'ladies man' of the forties further shocks the audience when his brother collapses with a suspected heart attack after being made penniless. When the paramedic tells Ameche of his brother's serious condition, Ameche's replies "Fuck him!" Money is far more important than family.

Curtis is by no means a great actress and she's no oil painting, but (and you know what I'm going to say here), she is fondly remembered by an entire generation for having fabulous tits. Especially in that scene.

Yes, I know, but as Paul Calf once said - it's no use complaining that David Beckham's not the brightest of men, if you're not going to say that Stephen Hawking is shit at football.

Jesus told us to use our talents wisely (especially in the, er 'Parable of the Talents') and as David Bowie once said: "We can be heroes - just for one day." So I've got to mention her breasts, haven't I?

There are some great montages in the film, and there are some excellent shots of the poorer areas of Philadelphia to contrast with the usual touristy bits. A good, Oscar-nominated score from the excellent Elmer Bernstein and there's a fine supporting cast of occasionally very weird bit-part players.

Trading Places is often vulgar and occasionally genuinely shocking, but there's a liveliness and energy about the film that compensates for its weaker aspects.

With a few script modifications, and fewer fluctuations in mood, tone and style, a good comedy film could have been a great one.