Trading Places

Trading Places
Director: John Landis
Screenplay: Timothy Harris & Herschel Weingrod
Stars: Dan Aykroyd (Louis Winthorpe III), Eddie Murphy (Billy Ray Valentine), Ralph Bellamy (Randolph Duke), Don Ameche (Mortimer Duke), Denholm Elliott (Coleman), Jamie Lee Curtis (Ophelia), Paul Gleason (Clarence Beeks), Kristin Holby (Penelope Witherspoon), Frank Oz (Corrupt Cop), James Belushi (Harvey), Al Franken (Baggage Handler #1), Tom Davis (Baggage Handler #2)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1983
Country: USA
Trading Places DVD Cover

Trading Places is what you might imagine a Frank Capra film would be like if it were reimagined for the Reagan era and starring a couple of stand-out comedians from Saturday Night Live. In true Capraqesue fashion, it’s all about the underdog rising up and the greedy-wealthy being punished, even though the lesson at the end of the movie is to get as much money as possible at all costs—just as long as it’s the right people who get it. See, greed is okay if we like those who end up with the dough.

Dan Aykroyd stars as Louis Winthorpe III, a smug blueblood commodities trader who seems to have everything: a Harvard education, a prestigious job managing the commodities firm of Duke & Duke, an elegant townhouse, a butler named Coleman (Denholm Elliott), a black limousine, and a beautiful and equally rich and snobbish fiancée (Kristin Holby). When someone casually tells him “You’re a lucky man, Louis,” his response is “It’s not luck.”

But, this is precisely the question the movie poses: Is Louis who he is because of heredity or environment? Was he borne with the intellect, skills, and drive that would guarantee his lifelong affluence, or was he just lucky enough to be raised in the right circumstances? This argument is waged between Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche, old pros clearly relishing their roles), the filthy-rich owners of Duke & Duke who decide on a little bet to decide it once and for all: They strip Louis of everything he has to see if he will turn to a life of crime and bestow of all his worldly possessions and opportunities on Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), a homeless con man who has just gotten out of the tank because Louis accused him of robbery.

Thus, Louis and Billy Ray trade places without knowing exactly why, with the Duke Brothers pulling the strings for their own amusement. The outcome is sneaky because, at first, it appears that Randolph Duke wins the bet: Louis does sink to a pathetic life of boozing and attempted criminality (he’s not a very good criminal, though), the only thing keeping him alive being a hooker with a heart of gold named Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis) who takes him in and cares for him (although she, like everyone else in the movie, is not without her own monetary ambitions). Billy Ray, on the other hand, quickly ascends to stately snob status, chiding his old friends from the ghetto when they come to his new townhouse and have the temerity to leave their drinks lying around without coasters.

Yet, because we like both Louis (who has an almost boyish insecurity beneath his well-varnished exterior) and Billy Ray (whose attitude and savvy give him more life than anyone else on-screen), it is clear early on that they will team up at some point to stick it to the Dukes. The Dukes are the movie’s villains, not because they’re rich (after all, both Louis and Billy Ray are rich at various times), but because they’re rich and manipulative (not to mention overtly racist). They are, in the most genuine sense of the term, the “filthy” rich.

The screenplay for Trading Places, penned by Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod , is clever in the way it gets to have its cake and eat it to. Made early in the Reagan era when greed was good, it can’t absolutely chide our impulses to accumulate wealth, but it can punish those do so completely at the expense of others. Louis and Billy Ray’s get-rich-quick scheme that provides the movie’s climax is acceptable because 1) it punishes the Dukes, and 2) it also helps out Coleman and Ophelia, as well.

Trading Places was directed by John Landis, who at that time was on a roll after the back-to-back successes of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980). He gives the film a lot of funny and knowing little details, such as the plaque outside the members-only Heritage Club that claims it was founded in 1776 “with liberty and justice for all,” when it is clearly the epitome of members-only class snobbery and exclusiveness. Having the movie set in Philadelphia, the birthplace of American democracy, was a nice touch, and Landis makes the most of it, constantly giving us insert shots of the Liberty Bell or a statue of George Washington to remind us that this is a comedy about class, that thing that most Americans don’t like to admit exists.

Landis knows how to handle his ex-SNL actors, and Aykroyd and Murphy make for a good pair. This was a particularly important film for Murphy, as it confirmed his success in 48 Hrs. (1982) and shot him to the top ranks of superstardom. Aykroyd provides the movie’s backbone as the straight man who gets humiliated and then redeemed, but it is Murphy who gets to chew the scenery, whether doing his con-man schtick as a legless Vietnam veteran or carefully navigating his way through the world of crusty old white men. It’s not hard to see that he was a star coming to full bloom.

Trading Places DVD

Aspect Ratio 1.85:1
LanguagesEnglish, French
Subtitles English
DistributorParamount Home Entertainment
Release DateSeptember 24, 2002

1.85:1 (Anamorphic)
The new anamorphic widescreen transfer of Trading Places (this is the first time it has been available on home video in its intended aspect ratio) is clean and clear, with strong detail and good color saturation, from the deep brown hues of the varnished wood of Louis’ townhouse, to the bright colors of the New Years Eve train party. The image is largely free of any nicks, scratches, or dust (except for a little speckling near the beginning), and a slight hint of grain gives it a pleasingly filmlike appearance. Having seen this movie dozens of time in increasingly bland-looking prints on TV, I can safely say this is the best I have ever seen it look.

English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
English 2.0 Surround
French 1.0 Monaural

The soundtrack has been given a new Dolby Digital 5.1-channel remix that is quite effective. The main beneficiary of the remix is Elmer Bernstein’s classical-sounding musical score, which is nicely spread out in the multi-channel mix, giving it a strong presence. Dialogue and most sound effects are clearly placed in the front soundstage without much tampering. The original two-channel surround mix is also included, as is a French monaural soundtrack.

No supplements are included, not even a trailer.

Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3)

James Kendrick

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