Director: John Landis Starring: Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd & Ralph Bellamy Synopsis: “A snobbish investor and a wily street con artist find their positions reversed as part of a bet by two callous millionaires.” Runtime: 116 minutes
” I had the most absurd nightmare. I was poor and no one liked me. I lost my job, I lost my house, Penelope hated me and it was all because of this terrible, awful Negro.”
I find myself in a difficult position while attempting to review Trading Places, it’s a fun movie but, to me, never a great one, and with some considerable hype behind it, I found myself somewhat disappointed by this 1983 comedy. Yes, Aykroyd, and especially Murphy are brilliant as the uptight stockbroker and the street bum who swap lives as the result of a cruel bet on the behalf of Aykroyd’s employers. But, for all the clever gags and Murphy’s impeccable timing, there is something a little flat about this movie that I’m struggling to put my finger on.
Trading Places is regarded as something of a classic, especially on the internet it seems. It is reviewed well, and has high scores on aggregation sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, and I would think that most people are somewhat familiar with the film in one regard or another, but it never quite hits the high mark I was expecting after seeing such glowing reviews.
Dan Aykroyd plays Louis Winthorpe III, who works for investment company Duke & Duke, headed by Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer (Don Ameche) Duke. Winthorpe is a snobbish type who, while no doubt good at what he does, seems to have been handed everything to him in life, and, as Jamie Lee Curtis’ hooker remarks, has never done a hard days work in his life. On the other side of the spectrum, we have Eddie Murphy’s Billy Ray Valentine. Billy Ray is a small time street hustler trying to make a dishonest dollar, in fact the first time we meet Billy Ray he is rolling around the streets of Philadelphia while imitating a limbless Vietnam veteran, who also happens to be blind.
Murphy and Aykroyd are a perfect fit here, and play off of each other with immense ease, it’s a shame they didn’t make more movies together. The role reversal is handled well, and the audience shifts from snarling at Winthorpe’s cowardly broker to cheering for him at the film’s end. As I mentioned previously, it is Murphy who steals the show. All street smarts and quick wit, his Billy Ray Valentine is a character who is the true hero of the piece. Going from being a bum, to the upper echelons of power in a successful firm, and all the while maintaining a fast talking charm that made Murphy such a star in the 80’s.
The supporting cast also perform admirably. Bellamy and Ameche play it straight as the uptight Duke brothers who, with all the money they possess, wager just a single dollar on the outcome of their nature vs nurture bet. While Paul Gleason, Jamie Lee Curtis and Denholm Elliot provide a much-needed backbone to proceedings.
So, where does it go wrong? For me, there is a slightly loose feeling to proceedings, most likely from the fact that director John Landis allowed as much improvisation on set as the actors could manage. While this wouldn’t normally dissuade me from a film, in fact many of my favourite films are from Saturday Night Live alumni and feature tonnes of improv work throughout, it creates a sense of imbalance here which I feel detracts a little from the material. There was also a sense that I never quite settled into the film once it had started. On a personal level, I feel some films grab you straight away and others can take their time in catching your attention, but Trading Places never quite took me by the hand or convinced me that it would be another viewing at a later date.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh though. Maybe I shouldn’t have looked at reviews going into this movie? Maybe my adoration of Aykroyd and Murphy during the height of their 80’s power became a burden, and made my expectations impossible to live up to? Maybe I should wait a year and review again next Christmas?
In summary: A fun movie, that plays on the Mark Twain novel The Prince and the Pauper with a clever style and street wise humour, but one that never quite meets the dizzy heights I was expecting after waiting all this time to see it.