PIE Reviews - Trading Places (1983)

This is our first! Trading Places

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Trading Places

Starring Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd and Jamie Lee Curtis

When Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod sat down to write Trading Places in the early 1980s, they probably didn't realise what a masterpiece they were constructing. The American comedy satire, directed by John Landis, would become critically acclaimed, shoot to the 1983 Box Office leaderboard, and even leave a legacy that led to an amendment of the American Constitution - a change to 'Insider Trading' that was later nicknamed the 'Eddie Murphy Law' after the Trading Places co-star*.

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But what makes this film such a classic? It isn't, by any stretch, a perfect film. However it does have its perfect moments. One of which is the casting of Eddie Murphy and Dan Akyroyd. Akyroyd plays the snobby stockbroker in a firm headed by and called Duke & Duke, which he manages, until said Duke and Duke wager a $1 bet on his life and essentially toss him out on the streets - with nothing. Akyroyd's Louis Winthorpe III is a complete satire of the aristocracy. The wonderful thing isn't the comic appearance of him on screen - in fact it's rather the opposite. At the beginning we hate him - rather emphatically - for being so snobby; we almost cheer when he's thrown out fending with just the clothes on his back (that aren't even his). But then it's a joy to go on this path where this loathing hate morphs into sympathy and then into us routing for him. By the end of the film, he even becomes something of a heroic character - the triumph of right over wrong; a wrong which originally included himself.

The man who takes his place in riches for Duke and Duke's little experiment is Murphy's previously homeless street hustler. He adopts Akyroyd's stockbroker life after being tempted into it by Duke and Duke. Murphy easily steals the show. His character, as would be expected from a Hollywood comedian such as him, is funny from the outset. It's not the Adam Sandler type 2D funny either - there's a lot of third dimension to the character he plays and there's a strong feeling of morality defined in him, even when he becomes part of this aristocracy. As another critic said, Murphy's comedy 'turns it into an event'.

Unfortunately Murphy's plot leaves a suggestion of the American dream concept - even if it does appear to be handed to him on a platter - and it's something which is a little annoying to viewers like me who don't get off on the 'wanna get rich and make it big' lifestyle choice -it's just a little too celebrity-minded.

All the same the plot is intriguing and moral-heavy. It shows us how those with rich material environments change their personalities - usually for the worse it soon appears, becoming selfish and isolated - and how those with nothing will turn to desperate measures, either to pursue riches or merely 'get by', but appear to be more inclined to create friendships. One thing the film ensures though is neither Akyroyd nor Murphy's characters lose their moral distinctions. Both characters are seen to see the good and evil of Duke and Duke's plan when it all comes out and, as in all moral movies, the film quickly turns into a plot path to 'justice' - or as us cynical folk might call it, 'revenge'.

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As the two embark on their revenge the tension builds and so does the thrill. It's a strange sensation to have the 'edge of your seat' feeling with a comedy, and it happens rarely successfully these days - perhaps the wedding deadline in The Hangover is an example of where it does work - but Trading Places grabs you. The film lasts almost two hours but it feels like it flies by, as time might do with a good book you simply can't put down.

One other dip in the film is watching it in a modern context means you may find some of the casual racism in the film, which was originally a daring move for comical response by its writers, a little shocking. It seems rather out of place and outrageous in today's environment, rather than satirical. For this reason, viewers may find in some places the jokes get uncomfortable - but again, it's easy to look over this time-telling slip.

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For me it's not just Murphy and Akyroyde who steal the show - and it isn't Jamie Lee Curtis' pretty presence and strong support role - but the butler Coleman, played by the late and great Denholm Elliott. Elliott portrays Coleman as almost the grounding piece to all the crazy plot line, comedy and eccentricity revolving around him. It is also the slight twinge of rebellion in his characteristics when Murphy's character steps into the rich bitch position that gets many of the gag-laughs. Coleman also becomes one of the definitive images of a butler in film culture, inspiring many later films; this is probably because he seems to adopt the world famous figure of the butler Jeeves and extend him into something quite the more real. Best of all, Coleman is given a share of the glory in the conclusion to Trading Places and, as he was the character I most associated with the ordinary fellow, it felt as though I was taking a slice of the glory too. And it felt good.

Trading Places is a lovely moral comedy classic. You can pretty much guarantee some smiles if you're not going to laugh and it is definitely a feel-good film. It may sometimes go a little political in its message as it strays too far to be moral, or a little uncomfortable to watch in the rare odd scene, but you'll look above these hiccups. Or you should anyway. I would definitely recommend this film. A Christmas cracker for all.

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*Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, OpenCongress. Accessed September 7, 2010.

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