Trading Places, 1983.
Directed by John Landis.
Starring Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd, Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche, Denholm Elliott, Jamie Lee Curtis.
Paramount is on an Eddie Murphy nostalgia blitz to promote the upcoming release of the sequel Coming 2 America, and as part of that they’ve reissued Trading Places on Blu-ray with improved image quality and a new interview with director John Landis. With the holidays around the corner, the film has a lesson that’s worth paying attention to.
Trading Places represents a bridge in Eddie Murphy’s career. He was a quickly rising star on Saturday Night Live, and he had made his mark opposite Nick Nolte in the successful 48 Hrs. He was on his way to becoming a major comedic force, and Trading Places helped set him up for that. It also allowed him to star with Saturday Night Live alumnus Dan Aykroyd in a film that was directed by John Landis of Animal House and Blues Brothers fame, thus bridging the previous generation of comic stars and the new one.
The story is an updated version of a tale that’s been told many times in different ways. It’s an attempt to answer “Why do people occupy the stations in life they end up in?”, which is a question that’s as relevant as ever today. I doubt it will ever cease being relevant, as long as some people continue to chase wealth while others fall by the wayside.
Murphy plays Billy Ray Valentine, a poor street hustler who’s a variation on the many quick-talking, wise-cracking characters who were his bread and butter in the 1980s. Aykroyd is Louis Winthorpe III, a wealthy commodities director at Duke & Duke, which is owned by the brothers Randolph and Mortimer Duke. The pair have an ongoing debate about nature versus nurture, and when they witness Louis’s insistence that Billy Ray be arrested for suspected robbery over a simple misunderstanding, they hatch a bet.
The Dukes arrange for Louis’s firing from their firm. Since he’s engaged to their grandniece Penelope, who now wants nothing to do with him, Louis also finds himself without access to his bank accounts and his home. Broke and homeless, Louis turns to Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis), a stereotypical prostitute with a heart of gold who agrees to help him if he will give her a financial reward once he’s exonerated.
The Dukes also bail out Billy Ray and put him in Louis’s old job. Unsurprisingly, his street smarts make him a pretty good commodities broker, and he enjoys his new standing in life while Louis schemes to get his position back. Aykroyd’s character does much of the heavy lifting in the early part of the plot, but when Billy Ray learns that the Dukes have settled their bet for $1 and plan on returning him to the streets, he seeks out Louis to help turn the tables on them.
It’s best to view Trading Places through the lens of a modern day parable, such as a retelling of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. The characters are archetypes and the plot is mostly predictable, but it serves as a good lesson on the role of wealth and greed in our society, even if those who really need to learn it are the ones who are least likely to pay attention.
It’s also a fun film to revisit if, like me, you grew up during the era in which it was made, or if you enjoy 80s nostalgia. Aykroyd was a dependable lead actor who was poised for a huge breakthrough the following year with Ghostbusters, and Murphy was starring in his second feature film and was also building toward his own major success in 1984 with Beverly Hills Cop. In addition, Jamie Lee Curtis had been typecast as a horror movie actress, so this film helped set her up for more diverse roles in the future.
Trading Places was remastered in 4K, although it’s not available on 4K Ultra HD yet, so fans will have to settle for this Blu-ray edition. It was previously issued twice on Blu-ray, and from what I’ve read online, this version’s picture quality is a step up from those releases. Paramount also included a code for a digital copy.
There’s one new bonus feature on this disc, Filmmaker Focus: John Landis on Trading Places, which runs nearly nine minutes. Landis opens his remarks by noting that the script felt like a film that could have been made during the 1930s, when the Depression put the contrast between haves and have-nots in sharp relief. He also admits that he didn’t know much about Eddie Murphy before the actor’s name was presented to him, but as soon as he saw his talents, he knew the comedian was right for the role.
The rest of the extras were ported over from past editions. They include:
- Insider Trading: The Making of Trading Places (18.5 minutes): Landis, writers Herschel Weingrod and Tm Harris, executive producer George Folsey, Jr., and the principal stars discuss the film from its early days through to its release.
- Trading Stories (8 minutes): Hailing from 1983, this brief piece features Landis, Akroyd, Murphy, and Curtis talking about the film.
- The Trade in Trading Places (5.5 minutes): If the financial aspects of the movie’s plot are a bit arcane to you, this quick primer will get you up to speed on the most important things you need to know. A few financial industry folks join this chat.
- Dressing the Part (6.5 minutes): Costume designer Deborah Nadoolman, Landis, Akroyd, and Curtis talk about why certain types of clothing were chosen for the film. It should be fairly obvious why they were selected, but it’s always nice to have a lesser-known creative get a turn in the spotlight in the bonus features.
- Industry Promotional Piece (4 minutes): Landis introduces this promo in which Akroyd and Murphy improvise some comedy as part of the effort to sell the film to movie theaters. It’s a fun glimpse into the old days of how films were promoted to theater owners.
The theatrical trailer and a deleted scene, which is also available with commentary by Folsey, round out the disc.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★