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: U.S.
Trading Places Blu-ray
Trading Places

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 is 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 is the right people who get it. See, greed is okay if we like those who end up with the dough.

Dan Aykroyd, a veteran of Saturday Night Live who had recently starred opposite John Belushi in The Blues Brothers (1980), 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 (newly minted SNL star 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), and the only thing that keeps him alive is 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 financial 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 film’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, which was penned by Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod, specialists in high-concept comedy who later co-wrote Brewster’s Millions (1985), Twins (1988), and Kindergarten Cop (1990), is clever in the way it gets to have its cake and eat it, too. 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 who do so completely at the expense of the less powerful. Louis and Billy Ray’s get-rich-quick scheme that provides the film’s climax is acceptable because (1) it punishes the Dukes, who are powerful and cruel, and (2) it helps out Coleman and Ophelia, as well, the two most conventionally powerless characters in the story.

Trading Places was directed by John Landis, who at the time was on a roll after the back-to-back successes of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (although he was in the midst of a horrific scandal involving the death of actor Vic Morrow and two children during the filming of Landis’s segment in The Twilight Zone: The Movie). 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, is a nice, sardonic 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, the 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 by doing his con-man schtick as a legless Vietnam veteran or carefully navigating his way through the world of crusty old white men. It is not hard to see that he was a star coming to full bloom.

Trading Places Paramount Presents Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English TrueHD 5.1 surround
  • French Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French
  • “Filmmker Focus: John Landis” featurette
  • Deleted scene with introductiom by executive producer George Folsey, Jr.
  • “Insider Trading: The Making of Trading Places” featurette
  • “Trading Stories” featurette
  • “Dressing the Part” featurette
  • “The Trade in Trading Places” featurette
  • Industry Promotion Piece
  • DistributorParamount Home Entertainment
    Release DateDecember 1, 2020

    It has been 13 years since Trading Places was first released on Blu-ray back in 2007, so for the film’s inclusion in the “Paramount Presents” line, it has been given a new 4K transfer that was supervised by director John Landis and looks great. The image is clean and clear, with strong detail and good color saturation—from the deep brown hues of the varnished wood of Louis’s townhouse and office, to the bright colors of the New Year’s Eve train party. There is no evidence of age or wear, but there is a solid presence of grain to give it a pleasingly filmlike appearance. The image is noticeably brighter and warmer than the 2007 Blu-ray, which brings out more detail and contrast in the image and also gives us more natural-looking flesh tones. The soundtrack has also been upgraded to a new Dolby TrueHD 5.1-channel mix that is quite effective for an early ’80s mid-budget studio comedy. 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. In terms of supplements, almost everything here was previously included on the 2007 Blu-ray: “Insider Trading: The Making of Trading Places,” an 18-minute retrospective featurette that includes interviews with director John Landis, screenwriters Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod, executive producer George Folsey, Jr., and stars Dan Aykroyd and Jaime Lee Curtis; “Trading Stories,” an 8-minute collection of interviews from a U.K. press junket in 1983; a short deleted scene featuring Paul Gleason stealing the crop report with an optional introduction by Folsey Jr.; “Dressing The Part,” a 6-minute interview with costume designer Deborah Nadoolman; “The Trade in Trading Places,” a 5-minute featurette in which commodities brokers discuss their business and try to explain what Billy Ray and Louis pull off at the end of the film; and a 4-minute industry promotional piece starring Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy that was put together for ShoWest. The only new supplement is “Filmmker Focus: John Landis,” a 9-minute interview with the director.

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

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