John Landis, a man made famous for his films in the 1980s is responsible for Trading Places, a film that gently pokes fun at capitalism and the wealthy banking sector of America. Many people of a certain generation will fondly remember Trading Places alongside such other 1980s comedies as Planes, Trains and Automobiles, The Great Outdoors and Coming to America. This is some company that is a little out of its league, but while it’s certainly not the strongest, it does have some cracking lines from its two leads, and shows the banking world on the advent of the invention of computers.
Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Ackroyd) is a wealthy, educated and spoiled Philidelphia-based investment banker. Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) is a low-life, uneducated street beggar, thief and con artist. After a chance encounter on the street, Winthorpe’s bosses, the Duke brothers, decide to place a bet to see whether the two mens’ fortunes are down to their genes or their circumstances. The two men systematically destroy Winthorpe’s life and give Billy Ray the chance of a lifetime.
Fresh off a stint on the iconic American variety show Saturday Night Live, Ackroyd and Murphy are on the top of their game. Winthorpe is so over-bearingly smug and self-satisfied, while Billy Ray is a funny, but complete irritant for society. As one raises himself up and the other lowers, both comic character actors are given the opportunity to stretch the believability of their characters trajectories to breaking point. On the whole this works and alongside Denholm Elliott’s butler, Coleman and Jamie Lee Curtis’ prostitute with a heart, Ophelia the main quartet’s company is just thoroughly enjoyable. Offset against them are the sinister, but comical Duke brothers, whose bizarre lack of belief in humanity and their blatent racism make them superb foils for the heroes.
While very funny in its setup and initial execution, Trading Places really loses its way toward the end, substituting Eddie Murpy’s quick-fire wit and Dan Ackroyd’s immense physical comedy with cheap, lowest common denominator humour involving party-goers on a train and a gorilla in a cage. The rest of the film isn’t exactly high-brow, but this section sits so at odds with the rest of the film, that it really sucks the fun right out of the whole story. It slightly redeems itself at the end, but by then the damage is done.
An interesting attempt at a not traditionally funny subject matter, Trading Places is fondly remembered as a by-the-numbers 1980s comedy that is dragged above mediocrity by it’s excellent cast. Not quite the warming, sentimental Christmas themed film that it could’ve been, but fun with some stand-out performances by Murphy and Ackroyd. Landis would make better films, but as one of his weaker films, Trading Places is still a lot of fun.