VOD film review: Trading Places
James R | On 15, Jan 2020
Director: John Landis
Cast: Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche
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“You want me to break something else?” That’s Billy Ray Valentine in Trading Places, after he’s been moved off the streets and into a fancy apartment. The two men who orchestrated his leap to fortune – stockbrokers Randolph and Mortimer (Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy) – have done so as part of a $1 dollar bet. The wager? That even the most deprived person, given the right opportunities, can become a successful businessman, and that a goodie-two-shoes stockbroker, given the wrong circumstances, can descend into a life of crime.
The Wall Street trader Billy Ray’s swapped with? That would be Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd), a wealthy white man who has never had to do a day’s hard work in his life, and wears his privilege like a giant golden badge. The two couldn’t be more opposite, or opposed to each other: Louis immediately presumes he’s being robbed by Billy Ray when the two accidentally cross paths, resulting in Billy Ray’s wrongful arrest. That kind of prejudice, in-built and systemic, and those kind of attitudes, ingrained and unspoken, are picked apart by Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod’s script, which dives deep into American class structure and raises questions of socio-economics and equality.
The fact that Trading Places does so is commendable, never losing sight that Mortimer is a horrendously racist person. The fact that it does so with the lightest of touches and the heaviest of belly laughs is remarkable; playing out like a dark twist of the prince-and-pauper tale, it riffs on a familiar premise to produce something more scathingly satirical, while never losing sight of its gag count. That’s partly thanks to John Landis’ direction, which keeps things racing from joke to the next (stopping you from dwelling on a misjudged joke involving gorillas), but it’s largely thanks to the impeccable cast.
Aykroyd is wonderfully put-upon as the unwitting target of the old duo’s prank – and yet is horrible and arrogant enough not to become a likeable victim. Jamie Lee Curtis as a sex worker skewers his pompous presence with blunt, witty observations – she rises above the script that gives her a thankless, cliched role. But it’s Eddie Murphy who steals the show, lining up an endless string of one-liners and physical comedy that undermines expectations at every turn. From the moment he pretends to be miraculously healed after faking blindness while begging, he’s a hugely likeable lead and a hilarious one to boot.
One sequence on a train, involving Aykroyd pretending to be Jamaican, is extremely awkward to watch, and that, in hindsight, is unintentionally indicative of the industry and society at the time. It taints the film somewhat, but also emphasises just how brilliant Murphy was to break through those kind of barriers to succeed in Hollywood – and, of course, make Trading Place an absolutely hoot to watch.
Trading Places is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, as part of an £11.99 NOW Cinema Membership subscription. For the latest Sky TV packages and prices, click the button below.